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Coalition seeks protection for Utah, White-tailed, and Black-tailed prairie dogs
Paonia, CO, and Santa Fe, NM-Utah author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams and a coalition of 15 environmental and animal protection groups across the U.S. plan a series of prairie dog protective actions to coincide with Groundhog Day on February 2. Whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, his beleaguered western cousins are in danger: Utah prairie dogs face extinction if protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are not upgraded. The groups are 1) petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to upgrade the protective status of the Utah prairie dog from "threatened" to "endangered" under the ESA, 2) filing a formal Notice of Intent to Sue the Service and other federal agencies for failing to protect and recover the Utah prairie dog, 3) filing suit against the Service for refusing to act on an ESA petition to list the white-tailed prairie dog (to be filed later in the week), and 4) urging the Service not to remove the black-tailed prairie dog from the ESA candidate list.
The Utah prairie dog is now recognized as being in acute danger of becoming extinct. At the turn of the millennium, the New York Times Magazine listed the Utah prairie dog as one of six species not likely to survive the next century. According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah prairie dog acreage has declined by over 98%. Populations decreased dramatically between 2000 and 2001, and declines continue. The most recent census indicated a mere 4,217 Utah prairie dogs throughout their range. Over 75% were located on private lands, where they can be shot legally and their habitat destroyed. The 190-page ESA petition cites the 1) extensive killing of Utah prairie dogs through shooting and translocation, and 2) continued habitat destruction as the causes for continued decline and a failing recovery program. The petition and the Notice of Intent to Sue the Service and other federal agencies charge that these agencies are failing to implement and enforce the ESA, and that the Utah prairie dog is being driven to extinction as a result.
"If the prairie dog goes, so goes an entire ecosystem," stated Utah author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams. "Prairie dogs create diversity. Destroy them and you destroy a varied world."
The groups maintain that the white-tailed and black-tailed prairie dogs, while not as close to disappearing as the Utah species, will also decline into extinction if the Service doesn't act to protect these species. The white-tailed and black-tailed prairie dogs face the same threats that have pushed the Utah prairie dog to the brink of extinction - sylvatic plague, habitat destruction, poisoning, and shooting. The Service is refusing to protect the white-tailed prairie dog under the ESA despite its clear legal mandate to do so. Center for Native Ecosystems and partner groups maintain they have no choice but to sue the government to obtain a decision on their ESA listing petition. Earlier this year, the groups also submitted a proposal to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the protection of key white-tailed prairie dog colonies and issued a report on conservation recommendations for the species to federal and state agencies.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service has turned its back on the prairie dog and flatly refuses to follow the best available science or the law," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Endangered Species Coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. "Citizens have no choice but to ask the courts for help."
The black-tailed prairie dog has been at the center of controversy since conservation groups in 1998 filed two citizen petitions to list this species, which once ranged across 11 states and over 100 million acres in the Great Plains and American Southwest. In 2000, the Service determined that the black-tailed merited listing under the ESA, but refused to protect the species. The black-tailed prairie dog has been an official "candidate" ever since. Candidate species receive no formal ESA protection and some have languished in unprotected status for as much as 25 years.
"The American public has repeatedly expressed its strong support for protecting endangered species and the Endangered Species Act," noted Erin Robertson, Staff Biologist of Center for Native Ecosystems. "The extinction of prairie dog species would be especially tragic because of their critical role in maintaining the ecosystems in which they live."
All prairie dog species are considered keystone species, providing food and creating crucial habitat for many other native wildlife species. As dramatic prairie dog declines continue, other wildlife like the Endangered black-footed ferret and the mountain plover (proposed for listing as Threatened) continue their own slides toward extinction. For example, many millions of dollars have been spent on a black-footed ferret reintroduction program, but that effort has faltered due to a lack of large, healthy prairie dog colonies. Over 200 types of wildlife have been observed on or near prairie dog colonies.
The coalition is led by WildEarth Guardians (Santa Fe, NM) and Center for Native Ecosystems (Paonia, CO) and is joined by Utah author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams. Other coalition members include Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, American Lands Alliance, Sinapu, Escalante Wilderness Project, Boulder Regional Group, Predator Conservation Alliance, the Fund for Animals, Humane Society of the U.S., Animal Defense League of Arizona, Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, Prairie Partners, and Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Also see Center for Native Ecosystems' website at www.nativeecosystems.org for further information.