It's the dog days for prairie dogs

 

The West's prairie dog populations are in bad shape. Of the five species in the West, two are already on the endangered species list, while a third is a candidate for listing (HCN, 2/1/99: Ranchers don't want refugee prairie dogs). No one has been looking out for the white-tailed prairie dog - until now. In mid-July, seven conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the football-sized mammals under the Endangered Species Act.

"It's pretty clear that they're not doing well," says Erin Robertson, a biologist at the Center for Native Ecosystems, one of the groups behind the petition. She says white-tailed prairie dogs experienced a 92 percent loss in habitat and population in the last hundred years. Their greatest threats now include recreational hunting and habitat destruction, mostly from oil and gas development.

Prairie dogs, says Robertson, actually create healthier grasslands and contribute to more productive ecosystems.

But the white-tailed prairie dog, which lives in high Rocky Mountain sagebrush basins, has long been vilified as a nuisance. Ranchers and developers often blame the animals for consuming rangeland forage, digging holes where livestock can break legs and turning buildable land into Swiss cheese; many would prefer to see them poisoned, shot or vacuumed up. Recreational prairie dog shooting is still unregulated in most Western states, despite past attempts in Colorado and Wyoming to thwart target practice.

"It's one of our lowest priorities," says the Fish and Wildlife's Chuck Davis. The species probably won't be listed because the agency is backlogged with higher priority candidates. "It's frustrating," he says. "But it's probably not an emergency."

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