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Conservationists will push forward for more protection
Washington, DC.- The Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in yesterday's Federal Register of their negative finding on a petition to upgrade the Utah Prairie Dog's status under the Endangered Species Act from Threatened to Endangered. WildEarth Guardians, Boulder Regional Group, and Center for Native Ecosystems reached a court settlement with the Service in June 2006 year that the agency would issue a finding this month. The negative finding came as a surprise, and there is evidence of illegal political interference. In its notice, the Service announced that it will commence a 5-year review of the species and will issue a revised recovery plan this year. WildEarth Guardians will work through these channels for upgraded protection, as well as continuing to pursue reclassification of the species to Endangered status.
"Utah prairie dogs are racing against time, and the Service is refusing to give them a fighting chance," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Conservation Director for WildEarth Guardians. "We will continue to push forward, as upgraded legal protections are the Utah Prairie Dog's only hope for survival."
The groups contend that, 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. In addition, 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 5% or even lower. Two out of every three prairie dog populations on federal lands are either extirpated or contain very small populations.
Habitat destruction is also a significant threat: in its February quarterly lease sale, the US Bureau of Land Management, the primary manager of the species' public land habitat, proposed to lease 110,000 acres of land occupied or suitable for occupation by Utah Prairie Dogs. The proposed leases are in the heart of this critically imperiled prairie dog's remaining habitat, where drilling would destroy the less than 7,000 acres of occupied Utah Prairie Dog habitat that still exists.
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.
Interior Department emails from late January and early February show that the Service may have illegally relied on political factors in reaching its negative finding for the Utah Prairie Dog petition. The emails expose concerns including partners "jumping ship" if a positive finding was issued, along with fears over the loss of a special rule that allows shooting. This rule, provided for under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, would be terminated if the species was upgraded to Endangered status.
Evidence of political interference in listing decisions is mounting for a number of animals, including the Gunnison's Prairie Dog, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, White-Tailed Prairie Dog, Mexican Garter Snake, Roundtail Chub, and California Tiger Salamander. The House Resources Committee is schedule to hold hearings into the endangered species listing program in May, including the issue of political interference in listing determinations.
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 protection for prairie dogs is a way to fulfill the Endangered Species Act's ecosystem protection purpose.
"The American public has repeatedly expressed its strong support for protecting endangered species and the Endangered Species Act," noted Erin Robertson, Senior 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."
There are five species of prairie dogs and all 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 listing to all three unlisted species, despite their imperiled status. The federal government released a negative finding on WildEarth Guardians' petition to list the Gunnison's Prairie Dog (found in the Four Corners area) on February 7, 2006, which the group, along with a coalition of scientists and spiritual leaders, challenged in court in December. There is clear evidence of political interference in that decision, with emails showing that the petition was on-track for a positive finding but was abruptly reversed through the intervention of Bush political appointee Julie MacDonald .
The White-Tailed Prairie Dog (found in Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming) was also a clear victim of political interference by MacDonald. As a result, the species suffered a negative petition finding in 2004. It was petitioned for listing by Center for Native Ecosystems and other groups in 2002.
The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (found in the Great Plains) was a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection from 2000-2004 but was removed for political reasons. WildEarth Guardians and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance filed suit to obtain federal protection for this species on February 7, 2007.
The setback for the Utah Prairie Dog comes on the heels of "Prairie Dog Day," a western twist on Groundhog Day. Over the past two years, five cities Colorado and New Mexico cities have declared Groundhog Day Prairie Dog Day, and several hundred schoolchildren have participated in prairie dog education programs.