A coalition of conservation groups and individuals, including author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, filed suit today to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the decline of the white-tailed prairie dog, a species that has vanished from 92 percent of its historical habitat. White-tailed prairie dogs inhabit the “Sagebrush Sea” of central and western Wyoming, northwestern Colorado, northeastern Utah, and south-central Montana, and are critical to the health of the sagebrush ecosystem. Endangered black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dogs for food and on their burrows for shelter. Prairie dogs also provide food for badgers, ferruginous hawks, and golden eagles and crucial habitat for many other native plants and animals. They play a key role in mixing soil, which results in better forage for grazers like pronghorn, bison, and domestic livestock, and increases soil moisture by allowing precipitation to penetrate deeper into the soil.
Watch video of the prairie dog
“If the prairie dog goes, so goes an entire ecosystem,” said Terry Tempest Williams. “Prairie dogs create diversity. Destroy them and you destroy a varied world.”
“Prairie dogs are absolutely essential to maintaining a healthy balance in nature that supports many species of native wildlife,” said Gene Byrne, a recently retired biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “Some species such as black footed ferrets cannot survive without prairie dogs. Prairie dogs supply nearly 100 percent of the ferrets’ habitat – food and shelter.”
Sylvatic plague, a disease accidentally introduced to North America around 1900, is now present throughout the range of the white-tailed prairie dog. Prairie dogs are extremely susceptible to this disease, and the white-tailed prairie dog has suffered large-scale population declines as a result. Oil and gas drilling, suburban sprawl, and conversion of the land to agriculture have also devastated prairie dog habitat. Most white-tailed prairie dogs live in small, isolated colonies that are easily wiped out by plague outbreaks, poisoning, or recreational shooting. Because their habitat has been fragmented and colony size has dwindled, populations are also more vulnerable to extinction from natural events, like drought or wildfire. Rather than protect the prairie dog, federal and state agencies continue to allow recreational target shooting and subsidized poisoning. Recreational target shooters killed more than 15,000 white-tailed prairie dogs on federal lands in Colorado alone last year.
All prairie dog species are disappearing rapidly across the West. Utah prairie dogs are so imperiled, currently numbering only about 4,200, that the conservation groups three weeks ago requested that the species be reclassified as “endangered” from its current status as “threatened,” and filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect and recover the Utah prairie dog. The coalition acting today argues that we should take proactive steps to recover the white-tailed prairie dog now before more drastic steps are required simply to avert extinction.
The groups point to their recent request of the Bureau of Land Management to designate 25 key prairie dog complexes as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. The Bureau of Land Management manages the bulk of white-tailed prairie dog habitat and needs to begin taking actions like these to prevent prairie dog extinction.
The petition to protect prairie dogs under the Endangered Species Act, filed in July of 2002, initiated a process where the Fish and Wildlife Service must formally consider designating the white-tailed prairie dog as a threatened or endangered species. The Service had 90 days to respond with an initial determination about the status of the species, and must then make a final decision on formal protection within 12 months. The Service is more than three months late. Endangered Species Act protection would require the federal government to develop a long-term recovery plan for the species and its habitat. Because of the thoroughness of the listing petition, much of the necessary scientific research is already complete. The recently released report “Recovering the White-Tailed Prairie Dog and its Habitat: Management Needs” spells out the steps required to stem the precipitous decline of the prairie dog.
“The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge,” said Erin Robertson, Staff Biologist for Center for Native Ecosystems. “We know how to stop degrading and destroying prairie dog habitat. The problem is the government’s obstructionism and stonewalling.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service routinely cites an inadequate budget and heavy workload as justification for listing delays, but this is a crisis of its own making. The Bush administration fought against increasing the ESA listing budget in FY2002 and refused to ask for more listing money in its supplemental appropriation request to Congress. The groups point out that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s entire Endangered Species Act budget has increased over 500 percent since 1992. The listing budget is the only line item that decreased in real dollars over that period. Every other line item increased at least 300 percent. “A preliminary finding on our listing petition will cost the Fish and Wildlife Service maybe $10,000 or $20,000,” noted Jay Tutchton, Staff Attorney with Earthjustice. “That’s less than the people of Denver spend on pizza in an evening.”
“Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and the Bush Administration are trying to starve the endangered species listing program,” explained Tutchton. “Unless this situation is reversed, many species may very well go extinct while waiting in line for review.”
The coalition, led by the Colorado-based Center for Native Ecosystems (Paonia, CO), also includes Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (Salt Lake City, UT), American Lands Alliance (Washington, DC), Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (Laramie, WY), Forest Guardians (Santa Fe, NM), the Ecology Center (Missoula, MT), Sinapu (Boulder, CO), and the naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams (Castle Valley, UT). Attorneys with Earthjustice and attorney Jack Tuholske of Missoula, Montana are representing the coalition.
A full media packet, including fact sheets, the ESA listing petition, the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern nomination, the report entitled “Recovering the White-Tailed Prairie Dog and its Habitat: Management Needs,” and downloadable, high-resolution photographs, is available at www.nativeecosystems.org/wtpd. More information about CNE is available at www.nativeecosystems.org.
Video of white-tailed prairie dog (No sound; 30 seconds long; RealPlayer required)