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Government Agencies Are Failing the Prairie Dog Test

Annual Report Card Celebrates Prairie Dog Day: Groundhog Day for the West

DENVER – Today, WildEarth Guardians released a report showing that state and federal government agencies are generally doing a poor job in managing prairie dogs. The group released its fourth annual “Report from the Burrow: Forecast of the Prairie Dog.” The report evaluates state and federal agency management of  prairie dogs, focusing on 2010.

By releasing the report on Groundhog Day, Prairie Dog Day in the west, the conservation organization puts an ecological spin on the predictions of the famous groundhog. “Punxsutawney Phil entertains us, foretelling the length of winter,” the report states, “but the status of prairie dog populations predicts the future of the western prairie ecosystems they create and sustain.”

Scientists consider prairie dogs keystone species. Like the stone that supports an archway, prairie dogs support whole ecosystems. Predators including the endangered black-footed ferret, swift fox, golden eagle, and ferruginous hawk hunt prairie dogs for food. Other animals use their burrows: snakes, cottontail rabbits, burrowing owls, beetles, and salamanders, to name a few. The nutritious vegetation in the colonies provides fertile foraging for grazers such as bison and pronghorn. More than 150 wildlife species benefit from the rich habitat prairie dog colonies create. Yet prairie dog numbers have declined dramatically within the last 150 years due to poisoning, shooting, farming and other types of habitat loss, and plague, an exotic disease that is extremely lethal to prairie dogs.

“A landscape without prairie dogs is a landscape in poverty,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Prairie dogs support a broad diversity of species and deserve strong protections in recognition of their importance to the prairie ecosystem.”  

WildEarth Guardians’ Report from the Burrow is a tool for the public to hold state and federal government institutions accountable. Unfortunately, most states and federal agencies receive poor grades. “We are disappointed that so many agencies continue to drag their feet on prairie dog conservation,” said Taylor.

It was a bad year for the Fish and Widlife Service’s grade, which dropped from a D+ to a D due to a variety of failures in legal protection of prairie dog species. In a disappointing June decision, the agency found listing of the white-tailed prairie dog “not warranted,” despite the fact that since the late 1800s, the species’ range has declined an estimated 92–98%. In September, a court struck down the agency’s 2007 decision not to upgrade the Utah prairie dog from threatened to endangered. The agency got slammed again the same week when a federal court in Arizona ruled that the Interior Secretary violated the law when he found only high-elevation Gunnison’s prairie dogs warranted ESA listing.

Two new agencies were included in this year’s report. The first is Wildlife Services, an ironically-named branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture which killed more than four million animals in 2009 while spending $121 million. The agency unsurprisingly receive an F, as their main action towards prairie dogs was extermination. Guardians also handed an F to the Federal Aviation Administration, which responded to the Hudson River plane collision with migratory Canada geese by ordering the extermination of prairie dogs at several western airports.

There are 12 western states within the range of the four U.S. prairie dog species. Nebraska and North Dakota received an F. Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming all received D, D+, or D-. Some states, like Colorado and Kansas, have poisoning or relocation laws that make prairie dog conservation more difficult. Despite the low marks, several states and agencies improved their grades from last year, including the Forest Service and the National Park Service. Arizona gets the highest grade among the states (B) for continuing to reintroduce prairie dogs to areas where they were once extinct. Guardians provided each state with the opportunity for input on the report prior to its release.

This year’s “Special Section” focuses on prairie dog language, highlighting the ongoing research of Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University. His work has demonstrated that prairie dog communication has all the criteria for language that matter to linguists. Prairie dogs have different “words” for different predators, including coyotes, hawks, badgers, and humans. Each of these calls elicits different escape maneuvers in the colony. They can distinguish between individual humans by clothing color, size, and behavior. Prairie dogs create new signals in response to new objects and situations, and they appear to transmit language through learning. The report asks that we consider prairie dogs as language-using individuals before poisoning, shooting, or otherwise destroying their colonies.

Report from the Burrow also highlighted “Prairie Dog Heroes” - people who have taken significant actions on behalf of prairie dogs. This year’s heroes were Drs. Rich Reading, Lauren McCain, and Brian Miller, all scientists who not only study prairie dogs but advocate for them as well.  These scientists have expanded our knowledge of prairie dog biology, ecology, and the maze of human-prairie dog relations that can ultimately lead to either prairie dog extinction or recovery.

Along with releasing the Report from the Burrow report card, WildEarth Guardians celebrates Prairie Dog Day by co-hosting educational events with the Denver Zoo and the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States.


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