WildEarth Guardians contest agency stance on prairie dogs

A conservation group said Friday that it will legally challenge a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month that the Gunnison’s prairie dog doesn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The action by WildEarth Guardians will throw back into court the issue of management of an animal living in the Four Corners region, including southwestern Colorado.

WildEarth Guardians contends the agency is ignoring the animal’s 95 percent decline over a century, focusing instead only on data from the past three to six years. The group plans to sue over the decision after a 60-day notice period.

Fish and Wildlife previously had found in 2008 that the prairie dog deserved protection in the mountain part of its range, located mostly in Colorado, and placed it on the candidate list for protection. In a suit brought by WildEarth Guardians, a court remanded that decision in 2010, finding that the agency improperly had listed only a portion of the species, contrary to the Endangered Species Act requirements.

Fish and Wildlife now says genetic data supports the recognition of two subspecies of the animal — the mountain-dwelling one and one living at lower elevations, largely in Arizona and New Mexico.

But under its November decision, Fish and Wildlife says both populations are stable and neither faces extinction threats. The decision meant the mountain population lost its candidate status for Endangered Species Act protection.

In a news release, WildEarth Guardians says, “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.”

Fish and Wildlife has acknowledged the ongoing impacts of plague, poisoning and recreational shooting of prairie dogs, but says the species can withstand those localized impacts.

In its notice of intent to sue, WildEarth Guardians says Fish and Wildlife fails to consider the increase in contest shooting of the prairie dog, and that repeated local plague outbreaks can result in a species-wide effect.

Jim Cochran, wildlife conservation coordinator for Gunnison County, said the Fish and Wildlife decision demonstrates the positive results of collaborative conservation efforts between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

“You work together and that works much better than fighting with each other, and it got it off the (candidate) list. That’s a good thing for the animal, it’s a good thing for the community,” he said.


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