Todd Richardson recently noticed that construction was ramping up at a vacant lot on the corner of Business I-20 and French Street in Odessa.
The lot, sandwiched between two hotels, had been inhabited by prairie dogs. But with the bulldozers about to move in, Richardson knew it was only a matter of time before something bad happened to the prairie dogs.
“It was clear that it was a commercial real estate site and it was in the process of getting sold and folks were thinking about developing it,” Richardson, a UTPB professor of English, said. “I was just anxiously watching over the years and what happened was it was clear that construction was just in the process of beginning.”
Richardson made a few phone calls to see what could be done to safely remove the prairie dogs from the site before it was too late.
“I didn’t have any luck so it was either I find a solution or they’re going to get killed,” Richardson said. “It was that simple.”
It wasn’t long before he finally got in touch with Lynda Watson who helps relocate wildlife to a new home.
“It’s a very technical and difficult job,” Watson, who lives in Lubbock, said. “People and volunteer groups around the country think it’s all about capturing the prairie dogs but they’re on school zones, oil fields, construction zones, basically, areas where they don’t belong. It’s not a good environment for them anyway. So the first step is that we capture the prairie dogs.”
Watson was able to catch the prairie dogs from the site, take them back to Lubbock and is now quarantining them for a couple of weeks before they can be released.
“This is not state law, this is my law. We have to make sure that they’re healthy and that we’re not moving any animals that might have any types of disease.”
Watson added that a lot of the animals she helps relocate are injured.
“Kids shoot them with BB guns so we get everybody healthy over that two-week period and while that’s going on, you locate where they’re going to go.”
There are numerous different options of where the animals can go.
“There are zoos, there are guest ranches that have become popular,” Watson said. “They may go to ranchers who understand their value to the range land. I do a lot of work with the Texas Parks and Wildlife on some of their state lands. You figure out what would be the best fit for that colony and in other words, if these are prairie dogs that are taken off of school yards that are used to eating French fries, you don’t want to take them to a ranch. You want to take them where they’ll be around people like state parks.”
It’s not just a matter of taking the prairie dogs and letting them go.
“You have to prep the land, mow the land, and drill a bunch of holes,” Watson said.
“When you arrive with the prairie dogs, you have to basically put them in a hole six or seven at a time and then a cage goes over the top of the hole and it stays down. You leave them in the hole in the cages for several days and either they’ll dig their way out of the bottom of the hole or you go back out and pull the cage over and at that point, you let nature take its course although you have to continue to mow the area because initially, these animals are busy digging tunnels. There’s about a year’s worth of commitment wherever it is they’re going to from the land owner and that’s what you do.”
Normally Watson has a very busy schedule but after hearing from Richardson and knowing there wasn’t much time left before the prairie dogs were killed, she was able to make a last-second appointment.
“Normally, I’m the only one in the world who does this so I’m booked up for like six months in advance,” Watson said. “But when this guy called me and said oh my goodness, vacant lot between two motels and the bulldozers are already parked over there. They’re just going to bury them alive. We just rolled out there and caught all the prairie dogs and I’m assuming that two days later, they started bulldozing and building. I’m not sure.”
It was a small colony of prairie dogs that they moved with only 10.
“I promised that’s all that were there,” Watson said. “But you have to understand that these animals on this vacant lot were likely being shot at by kids with pellet guns, feral cats, fox, and hawks. They’re sitting ducks. This is a parking lot that was overflowed with truck parking for a motel on either side of the lot. It’s amazing that any of them survived. The unusual part of these particular type of prairie dogs is that normally, when you catch these prairie dogs for a day or two, you’re introducing them to strange foods. These prairie dogs would eat anything you put in front of them. You could hand them a sweet potato or carrot and they’d snatch it and go for it. My assumption is that there was nothing to eat on this lot and that the folks staying in the motels were probably throwing hamburger buns and French fries and whatever. Those guys got used to whatever they were throwing at them.”
Because the site was private property, Richardson had to track down the owner of the commercial real estate.
Through numerous steps, Richardson was able to do that and sent them a letter asking for written permission to have Watson go on property and remove the prairie dogs and they agreed.
“We were literally one step ahead of the bulldozers,” Richardson said. “Lynda came down shortly after and rescued the prairie dogs and I was away on vacation and sure enough, they’re already digging up the site and doing everything else. We just got these little guys in time … I had to pay Lynda so what I did, I crowd sourced some funding and was telling my friends on Facebook about it and a lot of people chipped in some money to rescue the prairie dogs. It was $850.”
Watson has worked with the city of Odessa on some projects and has praised how well the city has been with keeping prairie dog colonies safe.
“Odessa has been on board with getting these things out alive and making sure that everybody and the prairie dogs are safe,” Watson said.
It was a crucial last-second project for Richardson considering how the prairie dog population has been nearly wiped out.
“Prairie dogs generally, about 90 percent of their population has been wiped out since settlement began,” Richardson said. “Only two percent of prairie dog populations remain. They are an important part of our history and heritage and prairie dogs have been living here in West Texas for a million years. They’re well-adapted to living here. They’re a keystone species, in other words, they’re an important lynchpin in the local ecosystem. A lot of plants and animals depend on them.”