West Texas was once home to half a billion black-tailed prairie dogs. Less than 2 percent remain. The animals are a “keystone species” of the plains.
Photo by Joe Ravi
They form a sophisticated society, with intricate communication. Prairie dogs are remarkable for their intelligence and sociability. And they’re a “keystone species” – a foundation of biodiversity – on the West Texas plains.
They nearly disappeared. Our region was once home to half a billion prairie dogs. Less than 2 percent remain.
For one West Texan, conserving these iconic animals is a profession. She’s known as “the prairie dog lady.” During 35 years, Lynda Watson has rescued and relocated 110,000 prairie dogs.
What does it mean for an animal to be a “keystone species”? To understand, visit a prairie dog town.
“Have you ever got to see a really big prairie dog town?” Watson said, driving the grounds of Lubbock’s Reese Technology Center. “This is really cool. One of the biggest ones you’ll ever see. This is just pretty much solid prairie dogs.”
Watson began reintroducing prairie dogs at Reese – a former air-force base – 20 years ago.
Now, it’s a prairie safari – the land bustles with life. Burrowing owls peek from abandoned prairie dog holes. There are box turtles, field mice, cottontails. A massive ferruginous hawk – big as an eagle – soars overhead. Badgers thrive. Coyotes and bobcats visit.
And 200,000 prairie dogs dart and chatter across the grasslands.
“The prairie dog makes life possible on the grasslands, it allows life to be possible,” Watson said. “This country is harsh, prairie dog country is harsh, and the richness is absolutely dependent on the prairie dogs.”
On the unbroken plains, prairie dogs are “ecosystem engineers.” Their burrows provide something other creatures need: a place to hide, from predators, and the sun. As builders of shelter, and as prey, prairie dogs support 170 other species.
They’ve been shot and poisoned by the millions. Their burrows have been seen as hazards to livestock. But prairie dogs can improve grazing lands. They need clear vistas to spot predators. They trim their territories, fighting back mesquite before it can take hold. Large herbivores – bison, pronghorn – prefer areas prairie dogs have manicured.
They do show up in unwanted places – sports fields, school campuses, land slated for development. A property owner can exterminate the animals. But if they want them moved rather than killed, there’s only one business to call – Watson’s PMS Recycled Vermin.
Once a Lubbock cowboy, Watson launched the business three decades ago. She’s perfected her technique.
Hauling a 500-gallon water tank, she and a partner drive into a prairie dog town. Nearing a burrow, she leaps from the truck – and blast soapy water into the hole.
“As the soap suds come up, the prairie dogs are right there,” she said, “usually right at the top of the soap suds, and you can feel them go under your palm, and you just grab them by the back of the neck, hold their mouth shut, and pull them out.”
Scars on Watson’s hands prove it’s not risk-free. And it can be heartbreaking work. A landowner may give her limited time. She knows the animals she fails to catch will be exterminated.
But Watson is creating a legacy. She works with ranchers who see prairie dogs as beneficial to rangelands. Relocating animals, she’s established thriving prairie dog towns on protected lands – not only at Reese, but at Caprock Canyons State Park.
It’s a safeguard against the species’ extinction, she said.
“In my lifetime I’ve moved 110,000 prairie dogs,” Watson said. “If only two colonies are here 200 years from now, what if they’re the last two colonies there are?”
Some academic biologists regard Watson with skepticism. Others seek her out, for her unique practical knowledge. In their calls, prairie dogs announce the identity of a nearby predator – badger, snake, raptor – its location, even the speed of its approach. Watson can identify some of these calls.
Working with prairie dogs has also transformed Watson’s understanding of the place she lives. It’s given her insight into the prairie, and its web of life.
“I’ve rode horses across this prairie my whole life, and I’ve driven cattle across this, and I never saw any of this stuff,” she said. “I had no idea what all was going on out there. It’s a big drama happening every minute out there. Nobody knows what’s going on out there. It’s an amazing thing. It’s a whole different world.”
Nature Notes is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.