Prairie dogs may be a pest to farmers, but to tourists, they are the cutest thing ever. (Photo by Mark Stachiew)

Go to Lubbock for Buddy Holly, but stay for the prairie dogs

The Texas panhandle city of Lubbock is famous as the birthplace of the late Rock & Roll legend Buddy Holly, but one of the city’s most enduring and popular attractions has nothing to do with music.

That attraction is Prairie Dog Town, an open-air enclosure in Mackenzie Park that was established in the early 1930s by Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy N. Clapp to protect a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs. The text of a nearby historical marker explains the story:

“The vision of Prairie Dog Town was conceived and implemented by K. N. Clapp in 1935. In the 1930’s the government’s poisoning program was becoming effective, and he was alarmed that the extinction of the black-tailed prairie dog would result. Mr. Clapp designed this enclosure and, with his friend Ross Edwards, trapped two pairs of black-tailed prairie dogs to be the original residents. He oversaw Prairie Dog Town’s care and operation until his death in 1969.”

By establishing Prairie Dog Town, the Clapps started what was the first protected prairie dog colony of its kind. The colony was moved to its current location in 1935 when Mackenzie Park became a state park and today hundreds of animals thrive there. 

While the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the black-tailed prairie dog from the Endangered Species Act Candidate Species List in 2004, the animals are seen as pests by ranchers and are frequently exterminated. They also face threats from habitat fragmentation and are susceptible to plagues that wipe out entire colonies of these remarkably social animals. 

Today’s prairie dog population is just a fraction of its historical numbers. At one time, Texas is said to have had prairie dog colonies that covered 25,000 square miles and were home to 400 million prairie dogs. Today, less than one percent of their original population remains.

During our recent visit to Lubbock, we made a point to make a quick visit to Prairie Dog Town. We missed the signs as we drove into the park so it took us a few minutes to find it, but when we saw prairie dogs in the outfield of the park’s baseball diamond, we knew we were getting close.

We pulled up to the viewing area and found a family with a young child who were making friends with the prairie dogs by tossing them cut veggies. We were all entranced by the prairie dogs’ antics, especially the babies that were beyond cute. They would sit on their haunches by their burrows and call out to each other with yips and yaps that were a delight to watch.

While there is a pavilion with some interpretive signs, there really isn’t much to Prairie Dog Town beyond a large area enclosed by a low stone wall where you can observe dozens of prairie dogs going about their daily lives. But that was fascinating enough that we could have spent hours there. It’s easy to see why a Lubbock Convention and Visitor’s Bureau tourism study showed that Prairie Dog Town was one of the city’s most visited attractions.

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