By Kris Axtman, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2002
Lynda Watson's right pinky finger is proof she's no run-of-the-mill animal lover. Last week it was bitten off by an ornery prairie dog she was trying to pull from its hole.
But a detached digit didn't deter her. She had it reattached and went right back to probing, barehanded up to her elbows in prairie dog holes, "racing the grim reaper," as she describes her mission to save thousands of the critters from extermination.
Prairie dogs have been the scourge of those who work the land since pioneer times and their ravaging tunnels are a modern problem across the plains states, from the manicured lawns of Lubbock and the cemeteries of Superior, Colo., to soccer fields in Lincoln, Neb. and cattle ranches in Edgemont, S.D.
What plainsmen have long settled with a .22 and poison, is a lot more complex today from the web of environmental concerns (endangered species and clean water) to city slicker sentiment (prairie dogs are hot pet-shop item from L.A. to Tokyo).
In Lubbock, where prairie dog tunneling has playedhavoc with the city sewage treatment farm, officials face a public-relations nightmare: How to get rid of over 40,000 prairie dogs some estimate 1 million with more than just the cows as witness.
The trouble began in June, when the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission found that the nitrate levels in the Ogallala Aquifer which lies beneath the treatment farm were dangerously close to acceptable limits. Crops grown on the farm are sprayed with the city's treated sewage water that is rich in nitrates. Thousands of prairie-dog holes, the report concluded, cause the water to flood into the aquifer before the nitrates leach out.
"We're kind of caught between a rock and hard place," says John Hindman, the manager of the 6,000-acre city farm. "But we have to do something. The prairie dog has completely taken over." The city must finalize plans to rid itself of the furry creatures by Aug. 20. And that's where Ms. Watson, who runs a prairie dog trapping business, comes in. She hopes to relocate as many of the animals as possible before extermination is an option.
Her work gives a hard- edged seriousness to environmentalism that tough-talking Texans usually consider a "touchy feel" nuisance.
Normally, when she's hired to control a population, Watson waits until the babies are born in the spring and then removes them without much fuss. But what she's doing today is unique in the prairie dog business: She's capturing full-grown adults not particularly interested in being caught (witness: the pinky incident). It's tricky business. First, she hops from the truck, warning: "When I'm on my knees, you don't speak." She begins filling a hole with water. Then she stops, listens, and turns the water back on. All the while, her free hand is nestled deep inside the burrow, waiting for a curious or scared prairie dog to come up.
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