Rarest US prairie dog doesn't get endangered status

Utah Prairie Dog (Cynomys parvidens) / Photo by Elaine Miller Bond, prairiedogcoalition.org

The rarest and smallest of the five U.S. species of prairie dog–the Utah Prairie Dog–isn’t getting endangered species status, despite years of litigation. Instead, the new rules keep the status quo and codify some restrictions that were already effectively in place.

About 42,000 of these little guys with black eyebrows chatter in three districts, but the colonies are spotty and the numbers not universally accepted. When they were first protected in 1973, only 37 colonies survived, thanks to a massive, 50-year eradication campaign by ranchers and the U.S.D.A.’s Wildlife Services.  Now you might be able to see them at Bryce Canyon National Park.

The FWS, led by rancher Ken Salazar, reasoned once again that the best way to protect prairie dogs is by not really protecting them and appeasing ranchers instead. Doug Messerly, who works for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, told the AP that “the best way to help the prairie dogs is minimize conflicts, especially with farmers” and “balance” economic interest.

The new rule does make permanent some things Utah was doing already to help the prairie dog. Farmers and ranchers have to show physical or economic damage before killing up to 36% of the colony. But, they can still kill up to 6,000 and do it within a half mile of the restoration zones. And it’s okay if they do it by mistake. If they were declared endangered, you just couldn’t shoot them.

WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that’s been fighting for the Utah Prairie Dog, is disappointed. Their ESA expert Taylor Jones, said in a statement: “these proposed amendments don’t go far enough. No matter how you dress it up, the rule would still allow shooting of a highly imperiled, ecologically important species, which is indefensible. Rather than continue to cast this keystone species as a nuisance, the Service should promptly return them to endangered status under the ESA.”

Check out the Prairie Dog Coalition



prairie dog range map / prairiedogcoalition.org

  • 1973 The Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens) was listed as an endangered species
  • 1984 Downgraded to threatened, with a special rule under section 4(d) that allowed regulated take of up to 5,000 animals annually on private lands in Iron County, Utah.
  • 1991 Take upped to 6,000 for the whole range
  • 2003 Forest Guardians sue to upgrade to endangered
  • 2007 FWS says no to endangered status
  • 2010 Federal court says no to the FWS refusal, but the FWS goes five miles out of its way to note that the judge “noted that although the level of take allowed in the 1991 special rule may not be biologically sound, some permitted take is advantageous to the Utah prairie dogs’ recovery. The court specifically noted that controlled take can stimulate population growth, reduce high-density populations prone to decimation by plague, and, consequently, curb the species’ boom- and-bust population cycle.”
  • 2011 FWS again says no to endangered status, but codifies some existing, de facto restrictions.

What’s different about the Utah prairie dog:

Tiny: 10-16 inches, 10 ounces to 3 pounds.

Tail: Short 1-3 inche white- or gray- tipped tail

Face: black eyebrow

Moms: not really good at protecting the burrow

Dads: sometimes eat their young

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