LAWTON, Okla. (AP) City officials' eradication of a burgeoning prairie dog colony at a local park has angered some residents who believe the creatures are the recreation area's most popular attraction.
Grounds crews began applying aluminum phosphide pellets deep into burrows at Elmer Thomas Park on Wednesday and plugged the entrances. The pellets release a poisonous gas that kills anything within the space in which it's released.
The compound, commonly used to kill rodents and insects, is approved as a prairie dog removal technique by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Lawton Constitution reported.
Parks and Recreation Director Kim Shahan called the removal a matter of public safety. Park visitors could trip on the holes left by the animals and their burrowing activity could damage structures and landscaping, the director said.
Shahan estimated the prairie dog population to be about 10,000. A private contractor set the number at 7,000 last fall, but a critic of the poisoning program said there aren't more than 2,000.
Prairie dogs are rodents that are related to squirrels and chipmunks. They are native to North American grasslands and are found in the United States primarily west of the Mississippi River.
City Council members rejected a $163,000 removal and relocation proposal from a private firm, saying it cost too much and the public wouldn't support the expenditure.
Susan Hubby, of Lubbock, Texas-based Citizens for Prairie Dogs, said the program is "giving Lawton a black eye.
"Mothers and babies are dying in those holes. That's inhumane," Hubby said.
She said she is especially angry because her group submitted a proposal for removal and relocation to the city on Feb. 16.
Assistant City Manager Greg Buckley said he visited with Joann Haddock, a representative of Citizens for Prairie Dogs. The group proposed removing 2,000 of the prairie dogs in a six-month period beginning in June, for a cost of $375 per eight-hour day.
Buckley said Lawton officials wanted a quicker resolution to the problem.
"We considered that proposal, and she understood the city had to address the issue and move forward," Buckley said.
John Paul Miller, a retired Parks and Recreation ground supervisor, said he watched the problem for years as a city employee. Now as an athletic maintenance supervisor for Lawton Public Schools, he said he has spent nights working with Lawton High School's football coach filing holes on the practice field there.
"It was a constant battle," he said, noting his job with the city included daily work to cover burrow entrances. "Before you got home, the little dudes had dug them up again. Many nights, I was called by people, wanting someone to do something about them."
Hubby said a better solution is a "capture and relocate" program, such as the one her organization offers.
"This is the most misunderstood little critter there is," she said.
Shahan said the plan is to allow a colony to remain on a 4-acre tract north of the Ramada Inn, a little-used area that is considered part of Elmer Thomas Park. But Shahan said the city still will carefully maintain that population.
"We'll evaluate every breeding season," he said. "The number now: It's out of control."