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Prairie Dog Conservation Inconsistent and Slow-moving
Denver—Today, WildEarth Guardians released the tenth annual Report from the Burrow, examining the twelve states in prairie dog range for their treatment of these keystone species in 2016. 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 one to two 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 about prairie dogs often outweigh their importance when management decisions are made.”
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. This year’s report differs from previous reports in that it no longer grades the agencies, but rather compares prairie dog occupied acreage estimates to the goals of state plans. Guardians made the decision to streamline the report after soliciting feedback from the included agencies.
Some states, such as Arizona, are actively working to enhance black-tailed prairie dog populations through relocation, plague prevention and management, and education. Other states, including Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming, have met the goals of the state plans and are therefore not taking any special management actions to maintain of enhance populations. Some states, such as New Mexico and Nebraska, are working from old information on black-tailed prairie dogs, and prairie dog conservation would be enhanced by new survey data. Several states, to greater or lesser degrees, have contradictory policies between agencies. Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming all have Department of Agriculture regulations defining prairie dogs as “pests,” which complicates their management by state wildlife agencies as species of concern and undermines conservation efforts.
“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 2017 Report from the Burrow is available at: www.wildearthguardians.org/site/DocServer/RFTB_2017_final.pdf