Photo credit: Rich Reading
Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens) | ESA status: threatened
Utah prairie dog
Utah prairie dogs, as their name implies, are found only in Utah. They have the smallest range of any prairie dog species. True hibernators, Utah prairie dogs sleep through the coldest winter months—and when they emerge in the spring, they have to work fast if they want to pass on their genes: females are only interested in mating for one day out of every year.
A keystone species
The Utah prairie dog shares the role of keystone species with its cousins, the black-tailed prairie dog and Gunnison’s prairie dog. Utah prairie dogs are food for predators including the kit fox, the golden eagle, and the ferruginous hawk, and their burrows are home to snakes, cottontail rabbits, burrowing owls, beetles, and salamanders, to name a few.
What are the threats to the Utah prairie dog?
Control programs and intensive poisoning efforts reduced this once-abundant species to a low of about 3,300 animals in the 1970s. After they were protected under the Endangered Species Act, their population grew, but they still occupy less than 15 percent of their historic range. Utah prairie dogs continue to suffer from habitat destruction for residential and agricultural development; plague outbreaks; and deliberate poisoning and shooting. Despite the fact that the Utah prairie dog is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, there is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) special rule on the books that allows up to 6,000 Utah prairie dogs (or 10 percent of the population, whichever is smaller) to be shot every year.
Utah prairie dog recovery
The recovery program for this species focuses on relocating prairie dog colonies out of the way of destructive human activities. A November 2014 court decision turned control of prairie dogs on non-federal land over to the state. The decision went against precedent, and was overturned by a federal appeals court in March of 2017.
What WildEarth Guardians is doing to save the Utah prairie dog
The Utah prairie dog’s listing as “threatened,” though powerful, is clearly not enough to protect a species that faces not only habitat destruction, but also active human persecution. WildEarth Guardians launched an effort in 2003 to secure upgraded protections for this species by petitioning FWS to reclassify it to “endangered” status and throw out the shooting rule. Though that effort was unsuccessful, we continue to track federal and state management of Utah prairie dogs and advocate for all prairie dog species.