Gunnison's and White-tailed Prairie Dogs in Trouble Says National Wildlife Federation Report

Due to nearly a century of mismanagement and persecution, as well as ongoing exposure to sylvatic plague to which they have little or no immunity, both the Gunnison's and white-tailed prairie dog are seriously depleted throughout their range, according to a report released on November 13th by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Environmental Defense (ED).

Drawing from scientific and historic literature, as well as reports and impressions of federal, state and regional land managers, Status of the White-tailed and Gunnison's Prairie Dogs, authored by Dr. Craig Knowles, found that the ongoing state efforts were inadequate to address the plight of these species. This is reflected in the lack of hard data on the two species' current trends and populations.

"Gunnison's and white-tailed prairie dogs are clearly species requiring immediate management attention," says Sterling Miller, NWF senior wildlife biologist. "Both species have been ignored for so long that only now are we beginning to realize the true extent of their decline. It is our hope that this survey will serve as a critical first step in addressing the rangewide need for new and more information on and better management for these two species."

Prairie dogs are considered keystone species in the prairie ecosystem because so many other animals depend on them for food, shelter, or both.

Among the report's key findings:

  • With only a few notable exceptions, most states have badly neglected these species and have failed to collect reliable information on their status or current trends.
  • Both species have been reduced greatly in overall abundance from historic levels.
  • Both the white-tailed and Gunnison's species are highly susceptible to an introduced disease organism, sylvatic plague, to which both species suffer nearly 100% mortality.
  • The Gunnison's prairie dog appears to be more threatened than its white-tailed cousin. This is because two major white-tailed mega-complexes survive, one in Shirley Basin, Wyoming, the other spreading across northwestern Colorado and eastern Utah. Both complexes, however, lie in the plague zone so their long-term survival is not assured.

"Our survey clearly shows that Gunnison's and white-tailed prairie dogs confront multiple threats and that in most places very little is being done to address the problem," said Miller.

Changes recommend in the report include:

  • Federal and state agencies must work together and move quickly to collect definitive data on current population status and trends.
  • Agencies must also establish targets for adequate and minimum numbers of acres for prairie dog habitation, develop population monitoring techniques and protocols, and systematically monitor prairie dog populations for plague and plague impacts.
  • The status of Gunnison's and white-tailed prairie dogs must be changed from that of a varmint or nuisance species to one that gives state fish and game agencies prime responsibility for their management rather than agriculture departments.
  • Hunting regulations should prohibit shooting in the spring when young prairie dogs first emerge from burrows and are most vulnerable.
  • Finally, agencies must tally up the effects of poisoning on private lands and support research efforts to reduce plague impacts on prairie dog populations.

White-tailed prairie dog range includes much of western Wyoming, northwest Colorado and northeast Utah. Gunnison's prairie dog is centered on the shortgrass prairies in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

NWF filed a petition to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species under the ESA in July 1998. In February 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that the black-tailed prairie dog was warranted for listing, but ruled that its listing was precluded for the time being by the need to list higher priority candidate species.

In July of this year, seven U.S. environmental groups petitioned the FWS, urging the agency to classify the white-tailed prairie dog as threatened or endangered.

"If the states heed the recommendations in this report, both of these species can be effectively conserved," said Michael Bean, who heads Environmental Defense's Wildlife Program. "There is no reason that the conservation of these species has to entail disruption of human communities or livelihoods."

The nation's largest member-supported conservation education and advocacy group, the National Wildlife Federation unites people from all walks of life to protect nature, wildlife and the world we all share. The Federation has educated and inspired families to uphold America's conservation tradition since 1936.

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