Current work in wildlife, rivers, public lands, and climate
Scientists: if prairie dogs vanish, other species will follow
Biologists say the same thing can happen when certain species, such as the Gunnison’s prairie dog found in the Four Corners area, go extinct. It is a keystone species, scientists say. Let it disappear, and other species follow.
The Gunnison’s prairie dog is one of five known prairie-dog species, and all are losing the battle for habitat and survival in the West, scientists say. “I think if they don’t receive some help, in the not-too-distant future all five species will go extinct,” said prairie-dog biologist Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University. “That in turn will affect a whole lot of other species that depend on them.”
A coalition of conservation groups from five Western states say that’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should list the Gunnison’s prairie dog as endangered. The groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Washington, D.C., federal district court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking federal protection for the animal. The lawsuit also seeks federal protection for the Dakota Skipper butterfly, the Black Hills mountain snail and the Uinta mountain snail.
Larry Bell, deputy regional director for outreach with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, did not return a call to his office for comment.
The lawsuit comes 10 months after 23 groups and 47 people — including scientists, property owners, Realtors and builders, including Slobodchikoff — filed a petition with the agency to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog.
Gunnison’s prairie dog has disappeared off 90 percent of its historic range; all five prairie-dog species are found on 2 percent of their original territory, Slobodchikoff said. They’ve died from plague, been poisoned as pests and been run off land by housing and mineral developments.
About 200 species of animals, birds, reptiles and plants are associated with prairie-dog towns, Slobodchikoff said. Mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks and burrowing owls all make use of prairie-dog towns for food or nesting.
And “they’re almost a universal lunch for predators,” Slobodchikoff said. One of the reasons the black-footed ferret is on the federal endangered-species list is it relies almost entirely on prairie dogs for food.
Linda Wiener, a Santa Fe entomologist, studied the short-grass prairie in Colorado and found a wealth of insects and arthropods were attracted to prairie-dog towns. She also signed the petition requesting federal protection of the Gunnison’s prairie dog. “They’re such cool animals,” she said.
Copyright 2005 Santa Fe New Mexican – Reprinted with permission