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Feds Pushing Utah Prairie Dog Toward Extinction

Conservationists pressure Fish and Wildlife Service to increase protections

Santa Fe, NM-Feb. 11. WildEarth Guardians sent notice today to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) warning that the agency broke the law by refusing to increase protection for the Utah prairie dog. The group petitioned for reclassification of the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from threatened to endangered status in 2003, and the Service issued a negative finding on the petition last year. WildEarth Guardians also released an analysis showing that Utah prairie dogs are approaching levels nearly as low as three decades ago, shortly after they were first put on the ESA list.

"While the ESA has saved the Utah prairie dog from extinction, it has also run headlong into intense prejudice against prairie dogs," stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Wildlife Program Director of WildEarth Guardians. "The Service-which is supposed to be saving this animal-represents the Utah prairie dog as a 'nuisance' and still allows people to shoot this endangered species," continued Rosmarino.

The Utah prairie dog is severely imperiled. The most recent counts, conducted in spring 2007, indicate that less than 11,000 adults remain. Of all existing populations, 70 percent are found in small populations numbering 60 or fewer adult Utah prairie dogs. There are 18 sizeable populations (numbering more than 100 adults), but four of these experienced recent population crashes of more than 50 percent, and one population is being reduced through massive translocation. Overall, just 13 of the 94 populations - 14 percent - can be considered secure. A larger proportion - 24 percent - has vanished completely.

Factors behind the Utah prairie dog's small and disappearing populations include sylvatic plague (a non-native disease against which prairie dogs have little to no immunity); loss of habitat from oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, and urban sprawl; drought and climate change; and shooting (both illegal and legal) and poisoning (illegal).

Another important threat is the government's refusal to provide full protections to the Utah prairie dog. In recent years, the Service authorized the elimination of one of the biggest remaining populations. It is now considering an agreement that potentially could hand over management of all Utah prairie dogs on private lands for fifty years to the Panoramaland Resource Conservation and Development Council, a group over which the Service has no authority. More than two-thirds of Utah prairie dogs live on private lands. On federal lands, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered over 110,000 acres of Utah prairie dog habitat for oil and gas drilling in February 2007.

"Utah prairie dogs are perched on the brink of extinction, but they face foes rather than friends in the Service and other government agencies. We will continue to push forward, so that the Utah prairie dog can enjoy all the benefits the Endangered Species Act could provide," said Rosmarino.

Endangered status for the Utah prairie dog would bring an important change: the end of a special rule that allows up to 6,000 Utah prairie dogs to be shot each year despite an adult population of less than 11,000 individuals. In addition, the Service may have to reconsider a failing approach to prairie dog recovery: massive translocation of the animals from private to public lands. Government agencies acknowledge that translocation usually results in survival rates of only 10 percent or even less.

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.

All prairie dogs are considered keystone species, providing food and creating crucial habitat for many other native wildlife species. Wildlife species 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 been documented as dependent on prairie dogs as prey or benefit from the habitat provided on prairie dog colonies. The Service has recognized for over a decade that protecting prairie dogs is an excellent way to fulfill the ESA's ecosystem protection purpose.

WildEarth Guardians' action comes on the heels of "Prairie Dog Day," a western twist on Groundhog Day. This year, the group released its first annual report card, "Report from the Burrow: Forecast of the Prairie Dog," which evaluates the performance of state and federal agencies responsible for ensuring that prairie dogs don't disappear. The grades were low: not one agency received an A or a B. The Service received a D-, given its failure to protect three species of prairie dogs under the ESA, and its refusal to provide increased protection to the Utah prairie dog. The state of Utah received a D+.

Read the notice of intent (PDF) (opens in new window)

Read our new Utah prairie dog report (PDF) (opens in new window)

As of January 28, 2008 WildEarth Guardians, Sinapu, and the Sagebrush Sea Campaign have joined forces to become WildEarth Guardians. With offices in Boulder, Denver, Phoenix and Santa Fe, WildEarth Guardians protects and restores wildlife, wild places, and wild rivers in the American West.


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