Gunnison’s prairie dog declared candidate species
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the Gunnison’s prairie dog qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, due to funding limitations, the February 1 decision said the prairie dog will be named only as a candidate species at this time.
The agency said the Gunnison’s prairie dog in the higher elevations of central and south-central Colorado and north-central New Mexico are most at risk. Populations at the lower elevations don’t warrant protection at this time, the agency reported.
The decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by scientists and conservation groups that petitioned for the listing in 2004.
According to Division of Fish and Wildlife External Affairs spokesperson Sharon Rose, as a candidate species, the Gunnison’s prairie dog will receive no additional protection at this time, and there is no express time frame for the species to be officially listed as endangered or threatened—the two classifications that trigger added protection.
"We review the candidate listings every year and make our determination based on current information," she said.
Gunnison County Commissioner Jim Starr said he thought the protection of the species should be handled similarly to the current effort to save the Gunnison sage grouse. In that case, a group of local stakeholders ranging from ranchers to conservationists have come together to develop action to ensure the species' survival.
"I think we should be proactive locally to maintain control of the response," said Starr. "I think that is more beneficial than a listing."
Longtime Gunnison rancher Bill Trampe said he doubts the Gunnison’s prairie dog is declining. "In my lifetime I’ve seen the prairie dog increase rather than decrease," he said.
Trampe said if the species receives threatened or endangered status, his ranching operations could be hindered. "When they list something, then I have to deal with the restrictions," he said.
"It doesn’t matter if I’ve been grazing my cattle there for 50 years."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Dianne Katzenberger said the agency has designated Gunnison’s prairie dog as a Category Two listing, which means there is an imminent threat of the highest magnitude that the species could go extinct without added protection. The only higher listing priority, Category One, is reserved for emergencies.
The Gunnison’s prairie dog is at risk because of habitat loss and sylvatic plague, according to Katzenberger.
Katzenberger said the species cannot be officially listed now because other animals have higher priority for protection under the Endangered Species Act and the agency doesn’t yet have the funding to make the final determination for the Gunnison’s prairie dog.
However, she expects the final determination within two years. "There’s a very good possibility the species will receive a final determination during the 2009 funding cycle," she said.
Katzenberger said the litigation regarding the prairie dog’s status would likely compel the agency to make a final determination sooner rather than later. She added that the public would have an additional opportunity to weigh in on the determination before it was finalized.
Conservationists are happy with the decision. "We’re pleased that the Service is finally recognizing that the Gunnison’s prairie dog is in serious trouble," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians, formerly Forest Guardians, one of the conservation groups that sued the Fish and Wildlife service to force the agency to reconsider the non-listing of the species.
The federal government settled the lawsuit last year. Environmentalists accused Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Julie MacDonald of manipulating scientific evidence to deny the prairie dog the added protection.
Rosmarino says she is heartened by the ruling. "We believe science clearly shows the desperate straits of the species," she said.
Rosmarino said WildEarth Guardians intends to hold the agency’s feet to the fire. "The designation of ‘candidate species’ can be a sort of a purgatory," she said.
Of the 282 animal species that are already candidates for listing, 120 others are also in this high priority category.
Five species of prairie dogs inhabit western North America—each with a different federal conservation status. The Mexican prairie dog is listed as endangered in Mexico; the Utah prairie dog is listed as threatened; the black-tailed prairie dog was formerly listed as a candidate species; and the white-tailed prairie dog was petitioned to be listed as a threatened species, but was denied the designation after the Fish and Wildlife Service made a negative determination.
Conservationists consider the prairie dog a keystone species because the animals provide food and habitat for more than 200 additional species, including raptors and predators like coyotes, fox, badgers and snakes.