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Ninth Annual Prairie Dog Conservation Report Card Released
Denver—Today, WildEarth Guardians released the ninth annual Report from the Burrow, grading six federal agencies and the twelve states in prairie dog range for their treatment of these keystone species in 2015. As in the past several years, the 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. Currently, they occupy only 1 to 2 percent of their former range.
“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.”
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. Guardians first issued the Report in 2008 in draw attention to the plight of prairie dogs, spur action within wildlife management agencies and create better outcomes for prairie dogs. Most states and agencies earn an average grade in the C range. Some, like Colorado and Arizona, earn higher grades by proactively conserving prairie dogs. Others, like Nebraska and the Environmental Protection Agency, get low grades for resisting or undermining prairie dog conservation.
“A grassland 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. The loss of prairie dogs diminishes the unique ecosystems they create and maintain.
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The 2016 Report from the Burrow is available here.