February 2, 2009

Environmentalists Grade States On Prairie Dog Protection

An environmental group released a report on Monday suggesting prairie dogs are being threatened across the West due to habitat loss, shooting and poisoning, the Associated Press reported.

North America's five species of prairie dogs have lost more than 90 percent of their historical range, according to the WildEarth Guardians report.

The report graded three federal land management agencies and a dozen states on their actions over the past year to protect prairie dogs and their habitat.

Arizona received the highest grade of all the states in prairie dog country with a B. That state improved its performance from last year by reintroducing 74 black-tailed prairie dogs to a small southeast parcel in October.

The group said state wildlife officials weren't actively conserving prairie dogs in New Mexico, home to the Gunnison's prairie dog and black-tailed prairie dog, which earned a D "” the same as last year.

Lauren McCain, WildEarth Guardians' desert and grassland projects director, said it was hard to see the prairie dogs that are missing when you drive across the West.

"Modern society has no perception about what it was like before we started poisoning prairie dogs."

Prairie dogs are an important part of a grassland ecosystem, McCain said.

"They are food for hawks, golden eagles, foxes and endangered black-footed ferrets, and their burrows offer shelter for a variety of other species," she added.

The Utah prairie dog is classified as threatened and the Mexican prairie dog is endangered. Preliminary findings issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest that the black- and white-tailed prairie dogs may warrant federal protection, and the Gunnison's prairie dog is a candidate for protection in part of its range.

The animals had not been seen in Arizona for nearly 50 years until the state's reintroduction.

James Driscoll, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist, said they were really pleased with the success and were getting the process ready to start another reintroduction.

Ranchers and others across the West consider prairie dogs varmints that destroy grass and cause erosion.

But misperception has resulted in wasteful government programs, according to McCain, who said various agencies have financed and encouraged the poisoning of prairie dogs for years while other agencies pump millions of dollars into recovery efforts aimed at other species that rely on the prairie dog.

She said they were hoping that the report card would highlight some of those inconsistencies in government management of wildlife

"These are species that we really do need to protect instead of wasting taxpayer dollars, which is a big concern for a lot of people."

The report also graded federal agencies.

The Bureau of Land Management received the lowest grade: D-minus, the same as last year. The agency is accused of exempting energy development companies from complying with rules that would protect prairie dog colonies and habitat.

"The agency takes numerous steps, such as moving well pads and roads to avoid prairie dog colonies and prohibiting prairie dog control on land it manages," said Bill Merhege, deputy state BLM director for lands and resources in New Mexico.

Merhege said they do what they can on public lands. "Unfortunately, with interspersed landownership, what you do on one section doesn't necessarily follow through on another."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a C, up from D the previous year, while the U.S. Forest Service stayed at D.

The report gave an F grade to Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota. Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Utah got D grades, and Wyoming earned a D-plus.


On The Net:

WildEarth Guardians

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service