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Report Celebrates Prairie Dog Day, Grades Agencies on Species' Treatment
Denver—Today, WildEarth Guardians released the eighth annual Report from the Burrow, grading six federal agencies and the twelve states in prairie dog range for their treatment of these imperiled species in 2014. This year’s Report reveals that while a few states and federal agencies are improving their prairie dog conservation efforts, the generally deplorable status quo, where these intelligent, ecologically important animals are treated as pests and widely poisoned, gassed and shot, remains largely unchanged.
Guardians releases Report from the Burrow annually on Prairie Dog Day (more commonly known as Groundhog Day), to draw attention to the plight of perhaps the most important species to maintaining and restoring healthy grassland ecosystems. Prairie dogs are key ecosystem engineers, providing habitat and food for scores of other species including endangered black-footed ferrets, badgers, bobcats, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks.
Akin to a report card, the Report grades are based on seven criteria, including habitat conservation and planning, laws regarding recreational shooting of prairie dogs, regulation of poisoning for prairie dog control, and how sylvatic plague (an introduced disease that can rapidly decimate prairie dog colonies) is addressed. Whenever possible, personnel from each state and federal agency were consulted for input on the Report and reviewed the sections focused on their agency’s work.
“Protecting and restoring prairie dog communities is essential to protecting and restoring grassland ecosystems, and requires commitment from our government agencies at all levels,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Unfortunately old prejudices still prevail and governments at every level are failing prairie dogs.”
Though most average grades did not change, several states improved their grades in monitoring; Colorado, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Wyoming are implementing and planning more regular surveys of prairie dog populations. Montana improved on plague management; Oklahoma is recognized for new relocation projects. Nebraska is recognized for rejoining the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Grassland Initiative. There appears to be a slight trend toward better state management. Federal agencies’ grades remain almost entirely unchanged. Due to new information provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program, Guardians raised its grade to acknowledge the importance of its plague prevention efforts, primarily on endangered black-footed ferret reintroduction sites. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues its refusal to protect imperiled prairie dog species under the Endangered Species Act. This year its denial of protections to the white-tailed prairie dog was overturned by a federal court, and a legal challenge to its refusal to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog is underway.
“A landscape without prairie dogs is an impoverished landscape,” said Jones. “Prairie dogs support a broad diversity of species and deserve strong protections, both because they are imperiled and in recognition of their importance to grassland ecosystems.”
Scientists consider prairie dogs keystone species. Like the keystone that supports an archway, prairie dogs support entire ecosystems. These social, burrowing mammals, members of the squirrel family, fertilize and aerate the soil and clip foliage, creating shorter but more nutrient-rich plants. Large herbivores including elk, pronghorn, bison and cattle often prefer to graze on prairie dog towns. Prairie dog burrows provide homes and shelter for numerous mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Prairie dogs are also an important food source for a wide variety of species including hawks, eagles, coyotes, foxes, badgers and endangered black-footed ferrets. Four species of prairie dog live in the United States: the black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, and Utah prairie dog. The fifth species, appropriately named the Mexican prairie dog, is found only in Mexico. Collectively, prairie dogs have lost between 93 and 99 percent of their historic range in the last two centuries, and that loss diminishes the unique ecosystems that prairie dogs create and maintain.
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The Report Card
The 2015 Report from the Burrow is available here.