Western states fail in latest prairie dog report card

Albuquerque, N.M. (AP) — While groundhogs will get all the
attention Monday, a report being issued by an environmental group
says their cousins, the prairie dogs, are in dire straits across
the West.

WildEarth Guardians says in its report to be released Monday
that North America’s five species of prairie dogs have lost more
than 90 percent of their historical range because of habitat loss,
shooting and poisoning.

It grades three federal land management agencies and a dozen
states on their actions over the past year to protect prairie dogs
and their habitat.

Not one received an A.

Most grades even dropped from the previous year, but Arizona
improved to a B _ the highest grade of all the states in prairie
dog country. That state reintroduced 74 black-tailed prairie dogs
to a small southeast parcel in October.

New Mexico, home to the Gunnison’s prairie dog and black-tailed
prairie dog, earned a D _ the same as last year _ because, the
group said, state wildlife officials weren’t actively conserving
prairie dogs.

“It’s hard to see the prairie dogs that are missing when you
drive across the West because our modern society has no perception
about what it was like before we started poisoning prairie dogs,”
said Lauren McCain, WildEarth Guardians’ desert and grassland
projects director.

McCain said prairie dogs are an important part of a grassland
ecosystem. They are food for hawks, golden eagles, foxes and
endangered black-footed ferrets, and their burrows offer shelter
for a variety of other species.

McCain said all the animals need federal endangered species
protections.

Of the five species, the Utah prairie dog is classified as
threatened and the Mexican prairie dog as endangered. The U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service has issued preliminary findings that the
black- and white-tailed prairie dogs may warrant federal
protection, and the Gunnison’s prairie dog is a candidate for
protection in part of its range.

Until Arizona’s reintroduction, the animals had not been seen in
that state for nearly 50 years.

“We’re really pleased with the success to the point where we’re
getting the process ready to start another reintroduction,” said
James Driscoll, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist.

Many people in the West, especially ranchers, consider prairie
dogs varmints that destroy grass and cause erosion.

McCain said misperception has resulted in wasteful government
programs. She said various agencies have financed and encouraged
the poisoning of prairie dogs for years while other agencies pump
millions of dollars into recovery efforts aimed at other species
that rely on the prairie dog.

“We’re hoping that the report card will highlight some of the
these inconsistencies in government management of wildlife,” McCain
said. “These are species that we really do need to protect instead
of wasting taxpayer dollars, which is a big concern for a lot of
people.”

Of the federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management received
the lowest grade: D-minus, the same as last year. The report
accuses the agency of exempting energy development companies from
complying with rules that would protect prairie dog colonies and
habitat.

Bill Merhege, deputy state BLM director for lands and resources
in New Mexico, said the agency takes numerous steps, such as moving
well pads and roads to avoid prairie dog colonies and prohibiting
prairie dog control on land it manages.

“We do what we can on public lands,” Merhege said.
“Unfortunately, with interspersed landownership, what you do on one
section doesn’t necessarily follow through on another.”

The group graded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at C, up
from D the previous year, while the U.S. Forest Service stayed at
D.

The group gave an F grade to Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.
Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Utah got D grades, and Wyoming
earned a D-plus.

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