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Conservationists Challenge Prairie Dog Removal Plan
Salt Lake City, UT-October 30. WildEarth Guardians, Terry Tempest Williams, Utah Environmental Congress, and Center for Native Ecosystems filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over a plan that would remove all Utah prairie dogs from the Cedar City Golf Course and Paiute tribal lands in southwestern Utah. The population is one of the largest remaining Utah prairie dog colonies.
WildEarth Guardians, conservation groups, and biologists criticized the plan in July 2006 because it would remove hundreds of animals and kill any remaining prairie dogs with body-crushing traps. In response, the Service eliminated the lethal trapping component of the plan but still authorized the elimination of the colony through translocation. The groups filing today's lawsuit charge that translocation is in effect killing, as fewer than 10% of the translocated animals are expected to survive, according to the Service's own estimations. With a census count of 434 prairie dogs in 2007, the golf course/tribal land colony is one of the four largest remaining colonies (note: census counts are estimated as representing approximately half of the population).
"This plan is a recipe for extermination of critically endangered Utah prairie dogs," stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. "The targeted population is one of the largest remaining Utah prairie dog colonies and should not be destroyed for the convenience of a few golfers," continued Rosmarino.
To mitigate for the loss of the golf-course colony, the Service is depending on a county-owned tract of land called Wild Pea Hollow. The Service required vegetative restoration of Wild Pea Hollow, in the hopes that the prairie dog population there would flourish. However, the population fell from 417 Utah prairie dogs in the 2006 census count to only 7 in the 2007 count, and restoration of that site has been a failure.
The Iron County habitat conservation plan, adopted in 1998, already allows for translocation of prairie dogs from the golf course and Paiute tribal lands but does not authorize the total removal of the population. The trend in Utah prairie dog management has been to allow for increased take, rather than recovery. In September, the Service announced it was considering adopting an agreement that would transfer all authority for management of Utah prairie dogs on private lands for fifty years to an organization called Panoramaland Resources Conservation and Development Council, placing approximately 75% of Utah prairie dogs in danger.
"Our government has violated its mandate to bring the Utah Prairie Dog back from the brink of extinction. These plans may push it over the edge and we will not allow that," said Kevin Mueller, Executive Director of Utah Environmental Congress.
All prairie dog species are considered keystone species, providing food and creating crucial habitat for many other native wildlife species. Wildlife closely associated with prairie dogs are undergoing what scientists describe as "a wave of secondary extinctions" due to prairie dog declines. Altogether, over 140 wildlife species have either been documented as dependent on prairie dog towns, or their biological requirements make it likely that they benefit from prairie dogs and the habitats they create. The Service has recognized for over a decade that safeguards for prairie dogs is a way to fulfill the Endangered Species Act's ecosystem protection purpose.
"Prairie dogs are a vital part of the fabric of the land in many parts of the West," said Josh Pollock, Conservation Director at Center for Native Ecosystems, "and yet the Utah prairie dog has already been pushed onto only a few small remaining patches. If we want to keep what's left of the prairie ecosystem, we have to preserve the prairie dog."
For a copy of the complaint and background materials, contact Dr. Nicole Rosmarino at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-988-9126x1156. The suit was filed in federal court in Utah.
Additional Contacts: Kevin Mueller, Utah Environmental Congress (801) 466-4055 Josh Pollock, Center for Native Ecosystems (303) 546-0214x1
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.
WildEarth Guardians and others filed a petition in 2003 requesting an upgrade to endangered status for this species. While the Endangered Species Act has been critical in protecting the Utah Prairie Dog from extinction, the Service has refused to fully implement all the required protections of the law. For instance, the agency is allowing up to 6,000 Utah prairie dogs to be shot each year despite an adult population of less than 9,000 individuals.
The emphasis in the species' recovery program is to move prairie dogs from private lands to public lands. Yet, government agencies have routinely recognized that translocation is often resulting in survival rates of only 10% or even lower. Between 1972 and 2005, over 21,600 Utah prairie dogs were translocated from private (or non-federal public lands) to public lands, prairie dog populations on federal lands are lower now than they were in the late 1980's, and the percentage of Utah prairie dogs on private versus public lands is still around 75%, the same proportion that has existed throughout the thirty-five year operation of the translocation program. Two out of every three prairie dog populations on federal lands are either extirpated or contain very small populations.
All five species of prairie dogs have been listed or petitioned for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Utah and Mexican Prairie Dogs were charter members on the Endangered Species Act list. But the Service has refused to provide federal protection to the other three unlisted species - the black-tailed, Gunnison's, and white-tailed, despite their imperiled status.