Utah prairie dog  Cynomys parvidens
ESA status: threatened

Utah Prairie Dog 1 Jess Alford

Utah prairie dogs, as their name implies, are found only in Utah and have the smallest range of any prairie dog species. They are true hibernators, sleeping through the coldest winter months. When they emerge in the spring, if they want to pass on their genes they have to work fast; females are only interested in mating for a few hours, one day out of every year. This smallest of prairie dogs shares the role of keystone species with its larger cousins the black-tailed prairie dog and Gunnison’s prairie dog: they are food for predators including the kit fox, the golden eagle, and the ferruginous hawk, and their burrows are home to snakes, cottontail rabbits, burrowing owls, beetles, and salamanders, to name a few. More than 150 wildlife species benefit from the rich habitat prairie dog colonies create.

There are less than 10,000 adult Utah prairie dogs left out of a population that numbered nearly 100,000 in the 1920s, before control programs ran their course. They occupy less than 15 percent of their historic range, and their decline is mainly due to intensive poisoning efforts. Utah prairie dogs continue to suffer from habitat destruction for residential and agricultural development, plague outbreaks, and deliberate poisoning and shooting. Despite the fact that the Utah prairie dog is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, there is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) special rule on the books that allows up to 6,000 Utah prairie dogs to be shot every year; more than half of the entire remaining adult population! The recovery program for this species focuses on relocating prairie dog colonies out of the way of destructive human activities. A November 2014 court case caused a huge setback for conservation by turning control of prairie dogs on non-federal land over to the state.The decision goes against precedent, as all other courts have upheld the ESA's ability to protect species found in a single state, and the case is currently on appeal. 

The Utah prairie dog’s listing as "threatened," though powerful, is clearly not enough to protect a species that faces not only habitat destruction but also active human persecution. WildEarth Guardians launched an effort in 2003 to secure upgraded protections for this species by petitioning FWS to reclassify it to "endangered" status and throw out the shooting rule. WildEarth Guardians will not rest until the Utah prairie dog gets the full protection it needs and deserves. 

photo credit: Jess Alford