Official determination expected in 2009
The Gunnison’s prairie dog may appear to be headed for an endangered or threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act, but local wildlife officials are doing what they can to bolster the population before such designation is official.
On February 25, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists gave a presentation to local citizens on the decision by the federal government to designate the Gunnison’s prairie dog as a species warranting threatened or endangered status under the Endangered Species Act.
The biologists said the species, which is native to high-altitude areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is in imminent danger of extinction due primarily to plague. Habitat loss, poisoning and shooting have also dented the animal’s population.
However, because there is a backlog of species warranting such listings, the Gunnison’s prairie dog has not yet received the formal designation, which mandates added protections.
"Right now we’re guestimating that a potential proposed ruling will come out in mid to late ‘09," said Fish and Wildlife Service Western Colorado supervisor Allen Pfister.
Until the final determination is made, according to Pfister, the Gunnison’s prairie dog’s status remains unchanged. "Until the species becomes listed, there is no additional legal protection," Pfister said.
Pfister said the Gunnison’s prairie dog has received a level two designation, which means the species is in imminent danger of extinction unless protection measures are implemented. The only higher ranking, level one, is reserved for emergency protection. Pfister said the ranking would be revisited based on additional collected data before the animal received its official listing.
When determining the status of the species, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists found that only the prairie dogs in the higher elevations of their range, or the "montane" population, warranted the listing. The montane population is found only in south-central Colorado and northern New Mexico. Pfister said Fish and Wildlife officials determined that the Gunnison’s prairie dogs, or "prairie" populations, found at lower elevations do not warrant listing at this time.
Whether or not the two populations actually represent two distinct species, or sub-species, is yet to be determined, Pfister said.
Fish and Wildlife biologist Amy Seglund, who is working to develop a conservation plan for several species of prairie dogs, said most of the at-risk population is within Colorado. "Forty percent of the candidate listing was for the montane Gunnison’s prairie dog, and most of that is within Colorado," she said.
Seglund said the status of white-tail prairie dog—also native to Colorado—was being litigated, and depending on the outcome of the case, that species may also warrant a threatened or endangered listing. The species is not found in Gunnison County, however.
The Gunnison’s prairie dog was listed as candidate species after conservation groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to reconsider the non-listing of the species. Environmentalists accused Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Julie MacDonald of manipulating scientific evidence to deny the prairie dog the added protection. The federal government settled the lawsuit last year.
The February meeting at the Fred Field Western Heritage Center attracted some area property owners and stockgrowers, but for the most part they just listened to the presentation.
Sandy Guerrieri, vice president of the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, asked if anecdotal evidence of growth in prairie dogs was taken into account. "Is Gunnison really losing prairie dogs?" she asked. Many local stockgrowers believe the local prairie dog population is growing rather than declining.
Seglund said it was impossible to do an actual numbers count of the species, so her agency depended on an inventory of burrow sites instead. And she said it was the marked decline of burrow sites that led biologists to determine that the species was in trouble.
According to Seglund, her agency will work to keep the populations of the Gunnison’s prairie dog robust so it won’t have to be officially listed. "We want to help keep it from being listed because that way we have more control of the management of the species," she said.
Seglund said the management plan the agency was perfecting would also account for species associated with the prairie dog. The animal is an important part of a broader ecosystem because it provides food for predators and its burrows provide habitat for a number of other plant and animal species.
Jim Cochran, local rancher and Gunnison County’s sage grouse conservation coordinator, said he seconded Seglund’s effort to keep the animal from being officially listed. "The state and community’s position is to take local action to preclude the listing," he said.
Cochran said it would behoove the community to treat the Gunnison’s prairie dog the same way the community has treated another rare Gunnison native—the Gunnison sage grouse. In that instance, a large group of interested stakeholders from diverse backgrounds have converged to help maintain and augment species populations in order to keep the bird from being federally listed as threatened or endangered.
According to Cochran in an interview after the meeting, an official listing for the prairie dog would have far-reaching implications. "If you take a look at (the proposed development) Gunnison Rising, there’s prairie dogs all over that land," he said. "The city can’t ignore it.