Prairie dog battle may be headed for court
December 7, 1998
By Environmental News Network staff
(ENN) -- Two environmental organizations put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on alert last week by filing a 60-day notice of intent to file suit unless the federal agency acts on two petitions requesting protection for the black-tailed prairie dog.
The Fish and Wildlife Service sent out a petition soliciting preliminary comments from state officials and tribal leaders on black-tailed prairie dogs this summer and is currently evaluating those comments, said Sharon Rose, a spokeswoman for the Mountain-Prairie region of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We hope to have a 90 day finding within a couple of months," she said.
The prairie dogs have been reduced to less than one percent of their historic range, according to the latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service population status review released in June 1998. Environmentalists fear that if immediate actions are not taken to protect the prairie dogs, they will go extinct.
The problem is that the ground burrowing rodents, which at one point occupied more than 100 million acres, are not well liked among cattle ranchers because the rodents eat vegetation that ranchers would rather see their cattle consume.
Thus ranchers poison and shoot prairie dogs in an effort to protect their cattle's range. Other threats to the rodents include plague and recreational shooting.
This general dislike for prairie dogs has resulted in an onslaught of political pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service not to protect the rodents under the Endangered Species Act, said Jasper Carlton, president of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, one of the organizations threatening to file suit.
"This issue has the most intensive pressure in the history of the Endangered Species Act," said Carlton. Some environmentalists believe the prairie dog debate has the potential to be as dramatic as last decade's spotted owl and old-growth forest issue in the Pacific Northwest.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service does issue a finding by the end of January 1999, and if that finding is indeed that listing the prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted, then the environmentalists will back off.
However, if the service fails to issue a 90-day finding and the case goes to court, Carlton is confident that the environmental groups will win because the scientific evidence is on their side.
"We will kill them if we get to court on this case," he said. "I can guarantee you that."
While Rose is hesitant to say that the federal agency is feeling pressured not to say that Endangered Species Act listing of rodent may be warranted, she admits that there is a lot of interest in this case.
"We have gotten a lot of letters asking us to look further into this issue and a lot of letters on the other side saying how foolish it (listing) would look," she said. "But I think we are going down the right path."
Prairie dogs create a unique ecosystem in grasslands that a host of other species, including endangered black-footed ferrets, depend upon for survival. As well, prairie dog grazing keeps vegetation in a young, thus nutritious, state, according the Predator Project, the other environmental group threatening to file suit.
The burrows, which are the signpost of a prairie dog town and the scourge of agriculturists and rural land owners, serve as shelter not only for the rodents but also black-footed ferrets, the burrowing owl, deer mice, tiger salamanders and short-horned lizards.
"We hope federal and state agencies will see our petition as a wake-up call to the dramatic decline of the black-tailed prairie dog, and will use this opportunity to improve their management of this species," said Johnathon Proctor of the Predator Project.
"We need to take a second look at the prairie dog ecosystem, how that ecosystem can benefit the environment. We need to see how it all works together," said Rose.
Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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