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Species Denied Protected Status Despite 95% Decline
Washington, DC – WildEarth Guardians will challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) refusal to protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service recently denied the species protection despite a documented 95 percent decline since the early 1900s and numerous ongoing threats.
“Failure to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Act,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “The Service is tying itself in knots to avoid listing this keystone species, cherry picking science while ignoring the species’ precipitous decline.”
Guardians will file suit after the requisite 60-day notice period challenging the Service’s failure to use the best available science, properly consider the ESA’s five listing factors, or consider the historic range of the species, among other failings. Ongoing urban and oil and gas development, shooting, poisoning, outbreaks of sylvatic plague, drought and climate change all pose significant threats to the species and its habitat.
The Service’s decision ignores the enormous range-wide decline in Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the last 100 years and focuses solely on occupancy modeling of the remaining populations over just the last 3 to 6 years. Plague is also dismissed as a threat, though an outbreak can cause 99 percent mortality or completely wipe out a population in a single season.
Prairie dogs are “keystone” species: approximately 150 species benefit from prairie dogs and the habitat they create, including swift foxes, burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, and mountain plovers. The black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, preys only on prairie dogs. Gunnison’s prairie dogs are found in grassland habitats in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The Service found Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the montane portion of their range warranted for listing in 2008, and placed the species on the list of candidate species. In 2010, a court remanded that decision because the Service had improperly listed only a portion of the species, contrary to the plain language of the ESA. The recent finding completely removed the species’ candidate status.
Guardians is represented by in-house staff attorney Ashley Wilmes.