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Gunnison's Prairie Dog Gets Second Chance at Federal Shields

Federal Government Must Reconsider Previous Decision

Phoenix, AZ—Sept 30. A federal court judge in Arizona decided today that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) must reconsider its 2008 decision on a WildEarth Guardians’ petition to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Martone said the agency violated the ESA when it only recognized the Gunnison’s prairie dog as endangered in the mountainous and not prairie portions of its range.

“We’re pleased by this decision, as the Gunnison’s prairie dog is imperiled across its range and desperately needs the safeguards of the Endangered Species Act,” stated Nicole Rosmarino, WildEarth Guardians’ Wildlife Program Director. “The Service needs to step up for this species, which has dwindled by 98 percent in less than a century.”

Today’s ruling was in response to a 2004 petition by WildEarth Guardians and 73 co-petitioners requesting the Service federally protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog. The species occurs in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. After several rounds of litigation and documented political interference under the George W. Bush Administration, the Service decided in February 2008 that this prairie dog only deserved protection in 40 percent of its range (mountainous parts of Colorado and New Mexico). Today’s decision strikes down the Service’s finding.

In his decision, Judge Martone wrote, “The defendant cannot determine that anything other than a species, as defined by the ESA, is an endangered or threatened species. Because the montane Gunnison’s prairie dog cannot warrant listing in accordance with the plain language of the ESA unless there is a species called the montane Gunnison’s prairie dog, we set aside the defendant’s Gunnison’s prairie dog finding and remand the matter to the agency for further action consistent with this Order…The defendant contends that the ESA gives him the flexibility to provide different levels of protection to the same species. We agree. The ESA permits the defendant to treat subspecies and distinct population segments of a species differently by designating them as separate species. While there may be ways to treat prairie dogs in the prairie differently than prairie dogs in the mountains under the statute, altering Congress’s definition of endangered and threatened species is not one of them.”

Judge Martone’s decision notes the Service’s documentation of a 98 percent decline in the area occupied by Gunnison’s prairie dogs, from 24 million acres in 1916 to 500,000 or fewer acres in 2008. Guardians’ petition chronicled an onslaught of threats explaining this decline, including mass extermination efforts orchestrated on behalf of the livestock industry; sylvatic plague, an exotic disease to which prairie dogs have little or no immunity; rampant oil and gas drilling; shooting; poisoning; urban sprawl; and other perils.

Scientists consider prairie dogs to be “keystone” species. Prairie dogs serve as prey for a large variety of carnivores including golden eagles, kit foxes, ferruginous hawks, and badgers. Prairie dog burrows provide homes to animals such as burrowing owls, lizards, rabbits, and other wildlife. From big mammals to small butterflies, more than 150 wildlife species benefit from the rich habitat prairie dog colonies create.

WildEarth Guardians is a west-wide conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife, wild rivers, and wild places. The group is celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity, of which it is a partner. During this year, through the United Nations, “The world is invited to take action in 2010 to safeguard the variety of life on earth: biodiversity.”

For more information, including photos of the Gunnison’s prairie dog, the petition, and background documents, email or call 505-699-7404.


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