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Species Remains Unlisted Despite 95% Decline
Washington, DC – Despite a documented 95 percent decline since the early 1900s, the Gunnison’s prairie dog was denied listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) today. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) contends the remaining 5 percent is not subjected to threats significant enough to warrant listing, despite ongoing development destroying prairie dog habitat, shooting, poisoning, outbreaks of plague, drought and climate change.
“The Endangered Species Act tasks the Service with truly recovering species, and today the agency dodged that responsibility,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “First wolves, now Gunnison’s prairie dogs: species clinging to just five percent of their historic range need the protections of the ESA.”
The Service’s decision ignores the enormous range-wide decline in Gunnisons’ prarie dogs in the last 100 years and focuses solely on occupancy modeling showing stability in the remaining populations over the last 3 to 6 years. The Service acknowledges ongoing impacts from shooting, poisoning, agriculture, and development, but argues that these impacts are “localized” and thus not a threat to the species as a whole. Plague is also dismissed as a threat, though an outbreak can cause 99 percent mortality or completely wipe out a population in a single season.
“It’s amazing that the Service can definitively state that a species has declined by 95 percent, and then immediately turn around and claim there’s no problem,” said Jones. “Its troubling that the day after hundreds of people gathered in Washington D.C. to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ESA, the Service publishes a decision completely contrary to the spirit of the Act.”
Prairie dogs are “keystone” species: approximately 150 species benefit from prairie dogs and the habitat they create, including swift foxes, burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, and mountain plovers. The black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, preys only on prairie dogs.
Gunnison’s prairie dogs are found in grassland habitats in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. They live at the highest elevations of any prairie dog species, from 6,000 to 12,000 feet. The Service found Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the montane portion of their range warranted for listing in 2008, and placed the species on the list of candidate species. In 2010, a court remanded that decision because the Service had improperly listed only a portion of the species, contrary to the plain language of the ESA. Today’s finding completely removes the species’ candidate status.
The Endangered Species Act is a proven effective safety net for imperiled species: more than 99 percent of plants and animals listed under the Act persist today. Scientists estimate that at least 227 species would have gone extinct if not for ESA listing.