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Utah prairie dog

The Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens) has the smallest and westernmost range of the five North American prairie dog species. It formerly occurred on 448,000 acres in southwest Utah [1]. Its range and numbers declined in response to habitat loss caused by livestock and agriculture, a deliberate poisoning campaign by and on behalf of the livestock industry, sylvatic plague, and drought. By 1995, it has been reduced to just 6,977 acres [1].

Poisoning of Utah prairie dogs by ranchers and the federal government began in the 1880, but a full-scale eradiation program was not launched until the 1920s [2]. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, tens of thousands of acres were treated with poison each year. By the time sylvatic plague was first recorded in the population (1937) it was already significantly depleted [2]. Poisoning programs continued into the 1950s and 1960s [1]. By 1972 the species had been reduced to just 3,300 individuals and was predicted to become extinct by 2000 [2]. It was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1973 and began improving almost immediately. The population was estimated at 9,332 individuals by 1981 [3]. Since then the population has experienced short-term upward and downward trends, but overall has increased significantly since listing.

After reaching a post-listing high of 11,700 in 2000, the species declined fairly consistently through 2005, prompting a petition by conservation groups to uplist it from "threatened" to "endangered" [1]. Sixty-eight percent of the species occurs on private lands where they are perceived to conflict with livestock grazing, agriculture and development [4].The primary management strategy before and after the 1991 federal recovery plan has been to relocate animals from conflicting private lands to locations on federal land that are at least one mile from the nearest private land border. An inter-agency recovery team declared in 1997 that the strategy was not working and was unlikely to ever result in the recovery of the species [4]. The team concluded that relocations often violated recovery plan habitat requirements, were not sufficiently monitored, and had a poor success rate. The team called for intensive restoration efforts on public lands to better support relocated prairie dogs, a systematic research program, a management strategy based on meta-population dynamics, and improved management of private grazing lands. The uplisting petition seeks to improve habitat conditions on both private and public lands, cease the large-scale removal of prairie dogs from biologically preferred private land habitats, and cease the shooting of prairie dogs [1].

[1] Forest Guardians, Center for Native Ecosystems, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Escalante Wilderness Project, Boulder Regional Group, and Terry Tempest Williams. 2005. Petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Reclassify The Utah Prairie Dog as an Endangered Species Under the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et Seq. (1973 as amended). Forest Guardians, Santa Fe, NM.
[2] USFWS. 1991. Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Denver, CO
[3] Rosmarino, N. 2005. Utah prairie dog census data, 1976-2005. Forest Guardians, Santa Fe, NM.
[4] Utah Prairie Dog Implementation Team. 1997. Utah Prairie Dog Interim Conservation Strategy. National Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Utah State University.

Banner photo © Phillip Colla