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Possibly last year for Prairie Dog Rebate program

By Randy Buhler
CSU Extension, Logan County agent, agronomy

This may be the last year for the Logan County Pest District Prairie Dog Rebate program. Environmental activists filed a petition under the Endangered Species Act requesting the listing of the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened or endangered species. Their petition review by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service indicated that listing may be warranted.

The South Dakota Fish and Wildlife Office is responsible for conducting the 90-day petition finding and initiation of status review. Upon a favorable finding during the 90-day petition review, the Service begins a status review and issues a 12-month finding on the petition. The conclusion of the status review should be announced by February or March of 2010.

The petition was filed by Forest Guardians (now calling themselves WildEarth Guardians), Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Center for Native Ecosystems, and Rocky Mountain Animal Defense. They are asking for listing the prairie dog throughout its historic range of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming plus historic ranges in Canada and Mexico. This historic range would encompass 3 million acres in eastern Colorado. The total range could encompass 80 to 100 million acres of the Great Plains.

The justification for listing is that prairie dogs are a keystone species and provide habitat for other endangered species. The prairie dog is food for black-footed ferret, swift fox, golden eagle, and ferruginous hawk. Its burrows and bare ground areas provide habitat for mountain plover and burrowing owl. These animals are listed as species of concern, threatened, or endangered status.

Of the many factors stated by the petitioners, the Fish and Wildlife Service accepted three as reasons a listing may be warranted. Those factors were sylvatic plague, inadequacy of existing federal and state regulatory mechanisms, and poisoning. The Service determined that emergency listing was not warranted because of the increasing trend in population number since 1961.

The petitioners also asked for critical habitat designation. The Service stated it would consider critical habitat issues if listing is warranted. The designation of critical habitat would be part of the subsequent proposed rule.

What should be made of all this? The story of the delta smelt from the last column should be adequate warning. The legal theory for removing use of water resources from agricultural production was based on humans can change or adapt while endangered species cannot. In the prairie dog case, it not only needs habitat (short-grass prairie) but, also, it is habitat for several threatened or endangered species.

Landowners with prairie dog colonies may find they cannot exercise any control measures against prairie dog incursions. In addition, vast stretches of their and their neighbors land could be designated critical habitat.

The 2004 "Conservation Plan for Grassland Species in Colorado" was hailed as an agreeable plan and was signed off by several agriculture groups. The goal of the plan included a statement that mentioned "addressing the interests and rights of private landowners." However, as the delta smelt story showed, private rights and interests were completely dismissed by the court order.

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