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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 8, 2001 - Issue 44


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Prairie Dog Conservation Efforts Making Progress


 by Claire Johnson of the Billings Gazette Staff-August 30, 2001

Plans to conserve black-tailed prairie dogs, a key animal in prairie ecosystems and a candidate for federal protection, are progressing on several fronts.

More than 60 people from 11 states, tribes, federal agencies, landowners and conservation groups working on prairie dog management converged at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center in Billings for a two-day session that concluded Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the multistate conservation team, federal agencies and a tribal consortium held separate meetings. The groups then met together Wednesday where each reported on their activities.

In February 2000, FWS officials said the black-tailed prairie dog warrants protection as a threatened species because of declining populations throughout its range. However, the agency postponed actually listing it because of other higher priority species. The FWS determined that prairie dogs have declined to less than 1 million acres rangewide, which is less than 1 percent of its historic range.

The FWS’s decision came after the National Wildlife Federation petitioned the agency to list the prairie dog for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Prairie dogs, which dig burrows and clip vegetation, are considered a key prairie species because so many other animals depend on them for food and shelter. Prairie dogs also are viewed by many landowners as pests to be controlled.

States hope that efforts to protect and manage prairie dogs may prevent the FWS from listing the species.

Bob Luce, coordinator for the multistate Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Team, said a final draft of a rangewide conservation plan is to be completed in a few weeks. That plan calls for the 11 states to manage about 1.9 million acres of prairie dogs by 2011, or about double what now exists.

Luce, a nongame biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, also encouraged state working groups, landowners and anyone interested in prairie dogs to write their senators and representatives urging support for landowner incentives in the farm bill, which is up for reauthorization this year. Incentives would encourage private landowners to help conserve prairie dogs.

Luce, who along with a broad-based group lobbied in Washington, D.C., in June, said an incentive program aimed at helping prairie ecosystems and species at risk has a better chance of passage than one specifically for prairie dogs.

In addition to developing a multistate conservation plan, each state is working on individual plans. The states include Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The individual plans are in various stages of completion with some close to becoming final.

Montana’s plan is in the final stages, said Dennis Flath, who chairs Montana’s working group for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Flath said he hopes a final version will be completed by October. The working group will be meeting in Billings Sept. 6 and 7.

Montana’s approach involves changing the legal status of prairie dogs to be considered a nongame species in need of management, which allows FWP to manage the animal. While the 2001 Legislature approved the change, the prairie dog continues to be listed as a pest to be controlled.

The plan also will propose closing prairie dog shooting from May 1 to July 30 on federal lands. Flath said the shooting restrictions would not include state school trust lands, which are managed to generate money for schools. He acknowledged shooting restrictions on state lands has been a source of debate and that the plan treats state lands like private land. State regulations requiring lease holders to control prairie dogs are not enforced, Flath said.

Another change is to remove tribal lands with prairie dogs from the state’s total acreage goals unless it reaches agreements with individual tribes, Flath said. Tribal lands contain 28 percent of the prairie dog acreage in the state.

Tribes within the prairie dog’s range have been working toward management plans. Shaun Grassel, chair of the Inter-Tribal Prairie Ecosystem Restoration Council, which represents about 10 tribes, said some of the tribes will have draft plans by October. Most tribes have recreational shooting programs, which provide revenue and help tribes control prairie dog populations, he said.

Grassel, who is from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said the objective of most tribes is to manage prairie dogs at current populations.

Federal agencies whose lands or activities may include prairie dog habitat worked on a final version of a memorandum of understanding with FWS. The agreement will provide cooperation among federal agencies for prairie dog conservation and management.

Pat Mehlhop, FWS grasslands coordinator for Region 6 in Denver, said the agencies dropped states from the agreement because it is geared more for federal agencies. Federal agencies working with FWS include 10 bureaus within the departments of agriculture, interior and defense.

Mehlhop said the federal agencies would like the states to provide their acreage goals, information on where states intend to focus conservation efforts and what they expect of federal agencies.

While federal agencies have the authority to manage wildlife on federal lands, they try wherever possible to defer to states on issues concerning candidate species, Mehlhop said. Candidate species are considered to be under the management authority of states.

Learn More about the Black Tailed Prairie Dog
Black Tailed Prairie Dog

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