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Background Information for Groundhog Day 2003: Prairie Dogs At Risk

February 1, 2003
WildEarth Guardians
In This Release
#EndTheWarOnWildlife, #ProtectPrairieDogEmpires
Prairie Dog Actions Scheduled Around Groundhog Day, 2003

Utah prairie dog: WildEarth Guardians, Terry Tempest Williams, and a coalition of other conservation organizations, including three based in Utah, are filing a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to upgrade the species’ status under the Endangered Species Act to “Endangered”, thereby providing increased legal protections. WildEarth Guardians et al. will also be sending a Notice of Intent to Sue to FWS, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service for violating the ESA through permitting killing and habitat destruction of the Utah prairie dog. The petition [cover/text] and Notice of Intent will be filed Monday, February 3.

White-tailed prairie dog: Center for Native Ecosystems, Terry Tempest Williams, and a coalition of other conservation organizations are suing FWS for refusing to make a preliminary finding on the groups’ petition to list the white-tailed prairie dog under the ESA. The complaint will be filed later this week.

Black-tailed prairie dog: WildEarth Guardians and a coalition of conservation and animal protection organizations are submitting a 60-page report to FWS that documents further declines of the black-tailed prairie dog, which is a candidate for listing under the ESA. Information provided by the groups includes evidence of increased poisoning in some states, illegal poisoning in others, the loss of some 104 colonies in 2002 in Colorado due to urban development, the massive threat to prairie dog habitat from coal bed methane development in the northern Great Plains, and continued threats from shooting and plague. The report will be sent to FWS on Monday, February 3.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Underfunding

FWS has argued that it cannot list the black-tailed prairie dog nor issue a 90-day finding on the white-tailed prairie dog because it lacks the funds to do so. In most years, Congress has granted FWS its full budget request or more. Further, FWS requests an especially small amount for listing actions – only $9 million requested in 2003, in contrast to the estimated $120 million required to address the backlog of species listings. Some 286 candidate and proposed species currently await ESA listing. It is therefore clear that FWS is tying its own hands by refusing to ask for the money it needs to implement the ESA. This is no surprise, given the Bush Administration’s outright hostility to the needs of endangered species.

The Status of Utah Prairie Dogs

Recent Decline: In their petition to upgrade the status of the Utah prairie dog under the ESA, the groups document recent dives in the Utah prairie dog population. In 2000, census counts indicated 5,878 prairie dogs across their range; in 2001, counts totaled only 4,217 prairie dogs. The prairie dog further decreased from 2001-2002, but government agencies are refusing to release this information. The declines are taking place in all three recovery areas designated for the species.

Permitted take: The main thrust of the Utah prairie dog recovery program is to translocate prairie dogs from private lands, where they are thriving, to public lands, where the relocated animals tend to disappear. Some 19,193 prairie dogs were translocated from private lands to public sites from 1972-2000. Yet, counts of prairie dogs on public land indicate that, in 1989, there were 2,482 prairie dogs censused across the three recovery areas, versus 885 counted in 2001. Over 75% of Utah prairie dogs are located on private lands, where they can be shot legally and their habitat destroyed. Indeed, under a special rule permitting take, and further take allowed under Habitat Conservation Plans, nearly 34,000 Utah prairie dogs have been lost.

Illegal take: In addition, illegal poisoning and shooting continues to occur, despite the species’ tenure as a listed species since 1973. The groups also charge that FWS and other government agencies with authority over Utah prairie dogs and their habitat are violating the ESA in numerous ways by allowing Utah prairie dogs to be shot, translocated, and have their habitat destroyed from farming, municipal development, or land uses permitted on public land.

The Status of White-tailed Prairie Dogs

While white-tailed prairie dogs can be a common sight in the region, appearances are deceiving; white-tailed prairie dogs now occupy only 8 percent or less of their historical territory. Sylvatic plague, a Eurasian disease accidentally introduced to North America around 1900, is now present throughout the range of the white-tailed prairie dog. Prairie dogs are extremely susceptible to this exotic disease, and the white-tailed prairie dog has suffered major large-scale population declines as a result. Oil and gas drilling, suburban sprawl, and conversion to agriculture have also devastated prairie dog habitat. Most prairie dogs now live in small, isolated colonies that are all too easily extinguished by plague outbreaks, poisoning, or recreational shooting. In January 2003 a petition was submitted to the BLM to designate key white-tailed prairie dog complexes as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and a report on “Recovering the White-Tailed Prairie Dog and its Habitat” was released.

In July 2002, a coalition of groups submitted a petition to list the white-tailed prairie dog under the ESA. FWS is required by the ESA to make a preliminary finding on this petition within 90 days of receipt. FWS is refusing to do so and is now three months overdue. See Center for Native Ecosystems’ website at www.nativeecosystems.org for further information and background documents.

The Status of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs

Candidate status: Two citizen petitions were filed to list this species under the ESA. In esponse, FWS determined that the species warranted ESA listing, but refused to list black-tailed prairie dogs, citing higher listing priorities. In fact, many species languish in candidate status, where they do not receive any protection under the law, for decades. FWS cites underfunding as the reason for its inaction, but it is clear that FWS itself is responsible for being underfunded (see section on ESA budget, above).

Continued decline: At the time it was designated a candidate species in 2000, FWS recognized that the black-tailed prairie dog had suffered a decline in acreage of 99%. In other words, only 1% of the area occupied by prairie dogs at the turn of the 20th Century still exists. In most states across its historic range of 11 states, southern Canada, and northern Mexico, prairie dogs remain entirely unprotected from multiple threats, including shooting, poisoning, habitat destruction, and isolation and fragmentation of their remaining acreage. Sylvatic plague continues to take a dramatic toll on the species, dramatically reducing prairie dog populations over the course of a few days.

New threats: Among new threats cited by the groups are the proposal for the development of some 51,000 coal bed methane wells, and 17,000 miles of new roads in the northern part of the species’ range. In addition, the groups urged the FWS to consider increased shooting; illegal and, in some places, increased poisoning; extensive habitat destruction due to urban sprawl in Colorado; and the impact of drought on prairie dogs as a basis for expediting the listing of the species.

Prairie Dogs are Keystone Species

Prairie dogs are one of nature’s clearest examples of a keystone species. Over 200 species have been observed on or near prairie dog towns. They serve as prey to a variety of raptors and carnivores and create habitat for a variety of wildlife through their shaping of plant communities and their extensive burrow systems. With the decline of prairie dogs, a suite of closely associated species has also declined. These include the Endangered black-footed ferret, mountain plover (proposed for listing as Threatened), swift fox (recently removed from the ESA candidate list), ferruginous hawk, and burrowing owl. Scientists warn of an impending wave of secondary extinctions of this suite of species and possibly others, if prairie dog decline is not reversed.