Prairie dogs not declining, U.S. agency says

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday that the Gunnison’s prairie dog doesn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision applies to an animal that between its two subspecies inhabits grasslands and mountain valleys in the Four Corners region, including much of southwestern Colorado.

“Gunnison’s prairie dog populations are stable and not declining,” the agency said in a news release. It said much of the credit goes to state game and fish agencies “that recognize the crucial role that prairie dogs play in the health of North American prairies.”

The animal is considered a keystone prairie species because of its importance to predators and other prairie species.

Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for the group WildEarth Guardians, said the Fish and Wildlife Service denied listing of an animal that has declined by 95 percent since the early 1900s, with the remaining 5 percent threatened by habitat loss, shooting, poisoning, climate change, drought, and outbreaks of flea-borne plague.

“The Endangered Species Act tasks the Service with truly recovering the species, and … the agency dodged that responsibility,” Jones said.

Fish and Wildlife acknowledges the ongoing impacts of plague as well as the continued poisoning and recreational shooting of prairie dogs. But it says new data show the animal “can withstand these localized impacts.”

In addition, it said state wildlife agencies have continued to monitor populations, enforce shooting closures, dust colonies with insecticide and test a plague vaccine, “which may be a powerful tool in the future to control the disease.”

Fish and Wildlife said new genetic data support the recognition of two distinct subspecies of the Gunnison’s prairie dog.

One is limited to higher elevations, mostly in Colorado. Its occupied range in Gunnison County alone was estimated at 5,800 acres in 1990, but thanks to plague, populations there potentially fell 94 percent over 12 years, Fish and Wildlife says.

The second subspecies occupies lower elevations, largely in Arizona and New Mexico. Fish and Wildlife said populations of both subspecies now are stable and neither faces extinction.

In 2008, it had determined the mountain population warranted being listed, with a listing precluded by higher priority species. Thursday’s decision ends that candidate status.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife supports the Fish and Wildlife decision, said state pokesman Randy Hampton.

“We have worked very hard to conserve populations of Gunnison’s prairie dogs and we believe that our management and research efforts, along with our on-the-ground partnerships, are beyond any effort that the federal government could implement within the animal’s range,” he said.

“CPW has worked on conservation strategies, trapped Gunnison’s prairie dogs for genetic research, conducted occupancy sampling to better understand the populations, and we have done considerable work on plague prevention such as burrow dusting and vaccination research work.”


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