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Feds Pushing Utah Prairie Dog Toward Extinction

Conservationists File Suit Against Fish and Wildlife Service to Increase Protections

WASHINGTON, DC - WildEarth Guardians filed suit in federal court last week against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over its failure 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 released a report earlier this year 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, this species deserves every tool in the toolbox to recover,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. “Rather than doing everything it can to protect this species on the brink, the Service panders to special interests that would rather see the species exterminated. The Service-which is supposed to be saving this animal-calls the Utah prairie dog a ‘nuisance’ and allows people to shoot this endangered species,” continued Rosmarino.

The Utah prairie dog is severely imperiled. Census counts indicate that only 10,000-11,000 adults remain. Of all existing populations, 70 percent are found in small populations numbering 60 or fewer adult Utah prairie dogs. There are 9 sizeable populations (numbering more than 200 adults), but six of these are wholly or partially on private lands and therefore face increased risk of unsuccessful translocation, shooting, and habitat destruction. One of these six private land populations is the subject of a massive translocation, from which fewer than 10% will likely survive. 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 almost no immunity); habitat loss from oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, and urban sprawl; drought and climate change; shooting (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, which 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 has offered over 110,000 acres of Utah prairie dog habitat for oil and gas drilling in recent lease sales.

“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. On April 2, 2007, the Service’s lead biologist for the Utah prairie dog stated in Cedar City’s Daily Spectrum that the shooting rule was not “biologically defensible.” In last week’s lawsuit, WildEarth Guardians argues that shooting Utah prairie dogs should be outlawed.

The lawsuit also challenges the Service’s failing approach to recovery: massive translocation of the animals from private to public lands. Government agencies acknowledge that translocation usually results in survival rates of 10 percent or less. The lawsuit seeks requests restrictions on translocation given that large-scale translocations have been shown to literally be throwing this federally protected species away.

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.

For more information, including the complaint and population analysis, contact Nicole Rosmarino at: or 505-699-7404.


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