State and Federal Agencies Score Poorly on Prairie Dog Report Card
Annual Report from the Burrow Celebrates "Prairie Dog Day": Groundhog Day for the West
Guardians released its fifth annual Report
from the Burrow today, finding that government agencies are generally doing
a poor job of managing prairie dogs and their habitat. The report evaluates
state and federal management of prairie dogs in 2011. While there were a few
success stories to report, most federal agencies and states received middling
to failing grades for their management of these species.
essential to a healthy grassland ecosystem, prairie dogs are not getting the
protection they deserve,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for
The Report from the Burrow is annually
released on “Prairie Dog Day,” Groundhog Day in the West. While famous Punxsutawney
us, foretelling the length of winter, the status of our prairie dog populations
has more serious implications for the future of western grassland ecosystems.
The report grades
federal agencies and twelve states based on a number of criteria, including
habitat conservation and planning, the existence of shooting regulations, whether
they allow poisoning to control prairie dogs, and how vigorously they address
plague in prairie dog colonies. Where possible, each state and federal agency had
opportunity to review and offer input on the report.
Arizona and the
National Park Service each earned a grade of “B” for their policies that
promote prairie dog restoration, conservation and education. Unfortunately,
every other agency and state scored middling to poorly on the report card. The
Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the use of toxicants, received
an “F” for approving Rozol for use as a prairie dog poison without consulting
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on possible impacts to other species. Three
states also received failing grades for their mismanagement of prairie dogs: Nebraska
and North and South Dakota.
“We give credit where
credit is due,” said Jones. “But many federal agencies and states are failing
prairie dogs, and we’re not afraid to say so. They must do better to conserve
these critically important species.”
Scientists consider prairie dogs
keystone species. Like the keystone that supports an archway, prairie dogs
support whole ecosystems. Prairie dogs fertilize and aerate the soil, reduce noxious weeds, and
clip the top parts of forage, creating a shorter but more nutrient-rich blade
of grass. Large herbivores including elk and bison often prefer to graze on
prairie dog towns. Prairie dog burrows provide habitat for numerous reptiles,
amphibians, and invertebrates. Prairie dogs are an important food source for a
wide variety of species including hawks, eagles, coyotes, foxes, and badgers.
Approximately 150 species benefit from prairie dogs and the habitat they
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,” according to Jones. “Prairie dogs
support a broad diversity of species and deserve strong protections in
recognition of their importance to the prairie ecosystem.”
Amidst a generally bleak assessment,
this year’s report highlights some success stories in prairie dog conservation.
A team of scientists is developing and testing a sylvatic plague vaccine that
could mitigate one of the greatest threats to prairie dogs: plague, which was inadvertently
introduced to North America in the early 1900’s and is transmitted through the
bites of infected fleas. Prairie dogs have no natural immunity to plague, and
an outbreak can rapidly cause 90 percent mortality or more in a colony. The
vaccine, developed by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife
Health Center, in collaboration with colleagues at other federal agencies and
the University of Wisconsin, has proven effective in laboratory tests. It is
now undergoing field safety trials.
consistently leads western states on the report card, was graded a “B” for its continuing
work to reintroduce black-tailed prairie dogs, which were extirpated from the
state in the early 1900s. The Town of Telluride, Colorado, in partnership with
WildEarth Guardians, crafted a “natural dispersal” management plan that
prohibits lethal control of prairie dogs on the Town’s valley floor open space
and allows the prairie dogs to expand their habitat. The Southern Plain Land
Trust is working to protect habitat for prairie dogs in southeastern Colorado, and
the Forest Service is facilitating relocation of prairie dogs in Thunder Basin
National Grassland in Wyoming. The report also offers tips for coexisting with
prairie dogs on your own property.
State or Federal Agency Grade
Bureau of Land
Protection Agency F
U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service D+
Wildlife Services F
New Mexico D-
North Dakota F
South Dakota F
Read the 2012 Report from the Burrow.
Read the 1 page short version here.