It was one of the simple pleasures of living on the East Side: Park your car on the frontage road at the intersection of East Loop 820 and Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway and watch the daily life of animals that once were as common on the prairie as the buffalo.
And now are just as scarce.
Prairie dogs. At one time an estimated four thousand black-tailed prairie dogs lived in Prairie Dog Town on sixty acres owned by longtime farmer Earl Henderson. The colony lived in a network of underground passageways and chambers—a subterranean Levittown. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
The Henderson family—as in nearby Parker-Henderson Road and Henderson Cemetery—had settled the land in the 1840s, probably on a Peters Colony land grant. By 1895 there were four Henderson homesteads in the area west of Village Creek where the loop and freeway would later intersect and where the prairie dogs would roam among the native grasses and stunted mesquite trees.
So, where did the little critters come from?
In 1971 the Star-Telegram wrote that Earl Henderson, then eighty-one years old, said that about 1961 “We had a neighbor over on the old Parker-Henderson Road who brought in three pair of them for pets. He had them fenced in his backyard, and there were always kids around playing with them. One day, however, a couple of kids left the gate open, and the following morning I heard several squeaky little barks behind my barn. I investigated and found all three pair, each digging a separate hole in the ground. Every time a pair had a family, another hole was dug by each pair of offspring. And they have multiplied tremendously every year.”
By 1963 East Loop 820 was encroaching on the Prairie Dog Town on the east. Note the stub of an intersection planned for the future Poly Freeway to the west.
By 1968 the Poly Freeway (later “Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway”) was completed, hemming in Prairie Dog Town on the south.
But the little critters prospered in their changing world.
No thanks to the federal government. Earl Henderson said the federal government once offered to eliminate the prairie dog town for him, but he declined the offer. He said the little critters weren’t bothering him: “They were good company.”
Many ranchers and farmers did not share Henderson’s affection for prairie dogs. Traditionally ranchers and farmers considered prairie dogs to be nuisances and poisoned them. In 1900 a prairie dog town with an estimated population of 400 million stretched over thousands of square miles between San Angelo and Clarendon. But the colony was decimated by poison put out by ranchers and farmers.
Likewise, people riding horses were no friends of prairie dogs because their burrow holes could trip a horse.
Even at Fort Worth’s Prairie Dog Town neighbors sometimes called police to report that people were shooting the prairie dogs with guns.
Others of us shot the prairie dogs with cameras. Here are two video clips of Prairie Dog Town in the 1970s, recorded on the primitive equipment of forty-plus years ago:
The juveniles were curious and carefree, running and wrestling playfully. The adults were all business as they stood sentry duty on burrow mounds and fended off their pestering younguns (“Don’t make me send you to your hole!”). Both adults and juveniles would occasionally rise up on their hind legs, raise their arms, and bark. Sometimes an adult would stick just its head above ground and bark repeatedly. They were perfectly comfortable around the horses they shared the acreage with. And they were not afraid of cars either in motion or parked nearby. But if you got out of your car and walked toward the colony, the sentries, like submarine commanders on a conning tower, would bark the “Dive! Dive!” alert, and everyone would head for the holes and disappear.
But in the 1970s Earl Henderson sold the sixty acres and moved to Houston, and Prairie Dog Town was destined for commercial development.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s the city gave the little critters their own homestead: Prairie Dog Park on Parker-Henderson Road south of Prairie Dog Town. That experiment did not fare well. There, too, the prairie dogs made themselves unwelcome by tunneling into the park’s baseball diamond. And dirt bikers in the park ran over them for sport.
Prairie dog colonies also are susceptible to disease and can be difficult to relocate because they are killed by predators before they can establish new tunnels and chambers.
After the acreage was sold and destined for development, City Parks Department workers and Humane Society volunteers tried to capture as many prairie dogs as they could to relocate them to west Texas. But the effort had limited success: The little critters were too smart for their own good, hunkering and bunkering safely out of sight in their network of tunnels and chambers.
This Channel 5 news video clip, digitized from VHS, is 110 seconds long:
By 1979 Prairie Dog Town was covered by asphalt and concrete. This satellite photo shows the location of Prairie Dog Town (circled). In the lower left is Prairie Dog Park. At one time Village Creek Park, in the upper left, also had a few prairie dogs. But now, as far as I can determine, neither park has a prairie dog colony.
As of April 2021, even the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge has no prairie dogs. But it does remain a home where the buffalo roam.