Lynda Watson, “the prairie dog Lady” holds up one of the rescued rodents at a vacant lot in Clovis that is a planned site for a new Clovis National Bank. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)
By Tonya Garner: CNJ staff writer
The wet and confused prairie dogs huddled together in cages, unaware their lives had just been saved.
They were captured at a future construction site as part of a rescue effort spearheaded by Clovis resident Susan Hubby.
Using a method that flushes the guinea-pig-sized member of the squirrel family from their burrows with a water hose, a rescue team from Lubbock captured 70 prairie dogs last week from two Clovis sites for relocation.
Hubby said her goal is to protect a delicate ecosystem in which the prairie dogs play a vital role.
“Black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls greatly depend on the prairie dog for survival,” Hubby said. “I would also like to educate people on prairie dog misconceptions. They don’t kill plants, they actually put nutrients back into the soil.”
David Stone, president of Clovis National Bank, said he gave Hubby permission to move the prairie dogs from the future home of a bank branch at Seventh and Norris streets.
Groundbreaking is scheduled to begin this week.
“I didn’t want to poison them,” Stone said.
Stone said he believed the animals would relocate themselves once construction began.
There are currently no ordinances against live-trapping or lethal methods of prairie dog removal, according to an official from the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services.
Hubby said one of the reasons she began her mission is she enjoys seeing the prairie dogs as she drives around town.
One of her favorite locations to watch the prairie dog activity was a lot beside Central Christian Church on Mitchell Street, she said.
With tears in her eyes, Hubby said she was devastated three months ago when they suddenly disappeared.
“I heard butane was poured down the holes to kill them,” she said. “Poisoning them is an agonizing death.”
Lewis Heisch, an elder at Central Christian who is in charge of the property, confirmed the prairie dogs were poisoned.
“Yes, we got rid of them,” he said. “It was approved by the Agriculture Department.”
“We have kids that play on that lot, and we would be liable for any injuries caused by them stepping in one of the holes,” Heisch said.
He sees prairie dogs as disease carriers that destroy plants.
“We need to get control of them,” he said. “People wouldn’t like it if we had an epidemic on our hands.”
Prairie dogs, which live in complex communities called “towns” or “colonies,” feed on grasses, roots, weeds, forbs and blossoms. They acquire all of their water from the food they eat.
The colony is an underground tunnel system leading to various chambers, which are bedded with dry leaves and grass. A typical town can cover 100 acres or more.
The Wildlife Services Department said they dispatch personnel daily to assess crop damage caused by prairie dogs.
A field in front of the Clovis Senior Residence Center was also home to numerous prairie dogs, which Hubby felt warranted removal. She alleged someone was trying to poison the animals.
Mary Weigl, administrator at the center, said she was approached by Hubby on Monday asking for permission to move the prairie dogs to a “safe haven 60 miles away.”
Weigl said she didn’t consider the prairie dogs a nuisance but did agree to the removal due to surrounding construction.
“We would never poison them,” Weigl said. “My personal home has land and I have turned it into an animal sanctuary.”
With the help of Hubby and family members, the rescue mission was executed by Lynda Watson, who relocates prairie dogs for a living. Watson has been saving the animals for more than 20 years. She is known throughout Lubbock as “The Prairie Dog Lady.”
Hubby, who said she paid for the removal service, said the animals will be relocated to a safer place, declining to name the exact relocation area.
“He is a rancher, and he has neighbors who may not be happy about his decision,” she said.
According to Watson, she has relocated 69,000 prairie dogs.
The rescue method involves a water hose, dish soap, trash can and patience. Watson begins by peering across the field through binoculars. Once she spies the head of a curious prairie dog, her assistant Luke Dickerson moves the truck (complete with prairie dog bumper sticker) into place. Using a hose attached to a water tank, Watson begins filling the prairie dog hole with soapy water. All the while, her free hand is buried elbow deep in the burrow, waiting for a curious prairie dog to come up.
Moments later, Watson will seize the prairie dog and toss it into the large trash can held by Dickerson. From there they are placed in wire cages to await transport.
“The water method doesn’t hurt them, it just leaves them confused,” Hubby said.
Relocating prairie dogs does have a down side. Three years ago, Watson had to have a portion of her pinky finger reattached due to a prairie dog bite. She has also been bitten by several spiders.
“The emotional part is worse,” she said. “I hate knowing we probably left some behind.”
By the numbers:
• 2-3: Weight in pounds of the average prairie dog
• 3-5: Lifespan of the average prairie dog
• 5: Types of prairie dog, including: black-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, white-tailed and Mexican
• 14-17: Length in inches of the average prairie dog
• 100: Average acres of land a prairie dog colony can cover