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Feds Pressured To Protect Declining Prairie Dogs

Bush Administration Ignores Petition to List the Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Santa Fe, NM-The western conservation group WildEarth Guardians filed suit on March 13th in federal court in Washington, DC to force Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to respond to the group's August 2007 petition to list the black-tailed prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the ESA, the decision was due in November, but Interior has failed to meet this deadline. The lawsuit seeks the required 90-day finding on whether or not the species should be considered for federal protection.

The black-tailed prairie dog has been eliminated from approximately 98% of its historic range, according to the lawsuit, with shooting, poisoning, disease and habitat destruction the leading causes of the massive decline in prairie dog populations. As both an indicator of the health of the grasslands of the Great Plains and as a keystone species, the decline of the prairie dog signals the unraveling of a once rich fabric of life on the American prairie.

"Prairie dogs and the prairie itself need the safety net that the Endangered Species Act provides," said John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. "We can't afford delay, as more prairie dogs and the ecosystems they sustain continue to disappear," added Horning. "When prairie dogs disappear, with them go the hawks, owls, foxes, ferrets, songbirds, and other animals that depend on them. Protecting the black-tailed prairie dog will help restore the natural balance."

One of the lawsuit's primary claims is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Bush administration ignored the scientific evidence supporting the need for federal protection and instead chose to overturn earlier findings that the species merited listing. In 2004, largely in response to political pressure from elected officials from South Dakota, FWS removed the black-tailed prairie dog from the list of candidates awaiting ESA protection. Many elected officials, including Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) and South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, publicly thanked the Bush administration for its decision at the time.

"The story of the black-tailed prairie dog is another in a long list of examples in which the Bush administration has sacrificed science and refused to obey the law," said Nicole Rosmarino, Wildlife Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. "We need the courts to level the playing field and give prairie dogs and all the wildlife they sustain a fighting chance."

Not coincidentally, since the FWS's 2004 decision not to protect the species, lethal control of black-tailed prairie dogs has sharply increased. South Dakota successfully executed a state-wide poisoning plan and pressured the U.S. Forest Service to poison prairie dogs on federal public land.

Elsewhere in the West other states have also increased prairie dog eradication efforts. Colorado recently approved use of the Rodenator-a device that blows up prairie dogs in their burrows, killing and maiming them and any other wildlife that might be in the burrow. The most common poison used is zinc phosphide, a poison that causes an agonizing death by internal hemorrhaging over the course of three days. Counties in Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and elsewhere are attempting to wipe out their prairie dog populations completely, and several counties have established funds to subsidize landowners for killing prairie dogs.

Prairie dog shooting remains rampant throughout the black-tailed prairie dog's range, with the U.S. Forest Service and several states allowing increases in recreational shooting since 2004. WildEarth Guardians filed a formal request to the Colorado Wildlife Commission in 2008 to ban prairie dog shooting across the state, citing the ecological importance of prairie dogs and the cruelty involved in using them as live targets. See, for example, prairie dog shooting advertised at:

In contrast with today's declines and mounting eradication campaigns, the prairie dog was once quite common. Historically the black-tailed prairie dog thrived across grasslands of 11 western states from Montana to New Mexico and reached into parts of southern Canada and northern Mexico. Existing in large colonies or "towns," prairie dogs once dominated prairie ecosystems, sustaining many other species. Lewis and Clark, the first official U.S. Government explorers of the western territories reported seeing "infinite numbers" of prairie dogs in the early 1800s.

"Without Endangered Species Act protection, there will be no end to the suffering prairie dogs experience daily at the hands of humans," said Rosmarino. "Now the government is allowing new and more inhumane forms of cruelty. The Rodenator is just one example, and there is a push to allow the use of killing mechanisms that have been outlawed for decades."

The lawsuit also claims that although the FWS admitted that the prairie dog has been eliminated from 98% of its habitat, it illegally discounted these facts. Instead the FWS focused its analysis on the 1.8 million acres where the species still occurs. "This flawed reasoning is like focusing on the 2% of your house that remains after a devastating fire. In the same way that people can't live in a house without a roof and walls, the black-tailed prairie dog won't survive over the long-term in only 2% of its natural range," said Rosmarino.

Remaining populations are fragmented and isolated and are tiny remnants of the massive colony complexes once found across the Great Plains and Southwest. Of particular concern are the seven large complexes (measuring 10,000 acres or more) that the FWS relied upon in 2004 to avoid federal listing. Since 2004, three of these seven complexes were decimated from plague, drought, and livestock. Three additional complexes have been subjected to extensive poisoning.

"The black-tailed prairie dog is caught in a death spiral - it is under increased assault, despite remaining in only 1-2% of its historic area," stated Rosmarino. "This species desperately requires the safety net the Endangered Species Act provides."

Background documents and photos are available upon request from WildEarth Guardians.

Contact: Nicole Rosmarino, Wildlife Program Director, 505-988-9126 x1156 John Horning, Executive Director, 505-988-9126 x1153


The black-tailed prairie dog was originally petitioned for ESA protection by multiple groups in 1998. In response to the petitions and litigation by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, in 2000, the Interior Secretary declared the black-tailed prairie dog "warranted" for listing as a Threatened species but "precluded" from actual protection by more urgent concerns. The species was then placed on the list of candidates awaiting ESA protection, where it remained until August 2004, when the FWS abruptly determined that it did not warrant federal protection. The day after the FWS removed the species from the candidate list, South Dakota announced its mass extermination campaign in the Conata Basin, home to the best black-footed ferret population in the wild. The state also announced state-wide plans for prairie dog extermination, despite its status as one of the last remaining strongholds of the species.

The government succumbed to pressure from the livestock industry and land developers, traditional enemies of prairie dog conservation, to allow more prairie dog eradication instead of needed protection. The Bush administration and its appointees within the Department of Interior have consistently sided with industry over the nation's wildlife and were clear opponents of prairie dog listing. Not one U.S. species has been listed under the ESA since May 2006, under Dirk Kempthorne's tenure as Interior Secretary. Not one species has been listed under the George W. Bush administration without citizen petitions or litigation.

There are five species of prairie dogs, and prairie dogs are unique to North America. Two species, the Utah and Mexican prairie dogs, were listed when the ESA was originally passed. All of the other three species - the black-tailed, white-tailed, and Gunnison's prairie dogs - have been petitioned for listing. Due to several lawsuits by WildEarth Guardians, the Gunnison's prairie dog was designated a candidate for ESA protection in portions of its range in February 2008. A recent lawsuit settlement by the Center for Native Ecosystems, WildEarth Guardians, and others requires the Interior Department to rule on federal protection for the white-tailed prairie dog by June 2010. Despite producing a brochure in the 1990s recognizing that protection for prairie dogs could provide safeguards for the ecosystems they create and sustain, the FWS has refused to list any prairie dogs over the past thirty years.

There is broad consensus that black-tailed prairie dogs play "keystone" roles in the ecosystems they create and sustain due to their extensive burrow systems, the prey base they provide, and their modification of plant communities. Recent research indicates they should be considered "highly interactive species" which should not only be saved from extinction, but also recovered in high enough numbers across a broad geographical distribution in order to continue playing their important ecological roles.

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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