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Who will stand up for the prairie dog as their populations shrink?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Yesterday was Groundhog Day, but what about Prairie Dog Day?

The prairie dog—the "groundhog of the West"—could use a little attention these days. All five species of prairie dogs are on the decline, and their habitat has practically disappeared, now standing at less than 10 percent their historic ranges. Just 100 years ago, the prairie dog could be found across hundreds of millions of acres from the Rio Grande RIver to the northern border of Montana. 

Frequently hunted as pests throughout the West, the prairie dog is actually a "keystone" species that helps keep its entire ecosystem healthy, according to WildEarth Guardians, which yesterday released its annual report card on prairie dog health, "Report From the Burrow: Forecast of the Prairie Dog."

The report grades state and federal agencies  on how well they are protecting prairie dogs. There were no A’s—and only one state, Arizona—and the National Park Service – scored above-average B’s. Ironically, the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) was extinct in Arizona for 50 years before its reintroduction in 2008.

“Our report card is a tool for the public to hold our state and federal government institutions accountable,” said Lauren McCain, Prairie Protection Director at WildEarth Guardians. “These agencies are legally bound to protect our wildlife and habitat and most are failing miserably when it comes to prairie dogs.”

The report ranks the agencies on factors such as prairie dog conservation plans, habitat protection, plague monitoring (prairie dogs carry bubonic plague, and have even been found to carry monkeypox), use of poisons and whether or not they restrict recreational shooting of prairie dogs.

The rest of the grades: Kansas and Nebraska got F’s; eight states (Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming) and two federal agencies (the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service) earned D’s; and Oklahoma and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service each took home C-minuses.

Only one prairie dog species, the Mexican prairie dog (Cynomys mexicanus), is protected under the Endangered Species Act; the Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens) is listed as threatened, which offers little protection beyond the designation that it is "likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future." The Gunnison prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) almost got protected status last year, but was passed over in favor of other, unnamed "priority" species. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing the status of the white-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus) and black-tailed prairie dog to see if the two species may deserve Endangered Species Act protection. (Oddly enough, public comments on the black-tailed’s proposed status review were due yesterday, February 2nd, the same day that WildEarth’s report was released.)

Image © Marieke Kuijpers / StockXchng

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  1. 1. hotblack 3:55 pm 02/3/2009

    A: No one. I’ve lived in most of the states that have them, and only the elderly transplants are entertained by them. Younger generations consider them a pest and love to talk about shooting them, flooding their tunnels, and dreams of dynamiting them.

    Really helps give the impression that people have zero respect or understanding of life.

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  2. 2. The Patriot 7:16 pm 02/3/2009

    Kill them all. they are killing our food supply and they carry a very dangerous preon type disease.

    Link to this
  3. 3. hotblack 8:16 pm 02/3/2009

    See? Idiots.

    The same can be said for humans, be we don’t run advocate killing them off.

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  4. 4. The Patriot 9:07 pm 02/3/2009

    It is very possible that the human race will become extinct. The highly educated tend to loose common scents. Genetically altered food plants ( peanuts and soy beans are the worst along with corn and wheat), chemicals in our food (nitrates and nitrites, synthetic sweeteners and drugs, also MSG) God put every thing we need right here on earth. Why is every body trying to change what Mother Nature has given us. Prairie dogs just happen to be a rodent, just like rats, mice, squirrels, and many others that carry deceases to humans. A rodent would eat a human right down to the bone if they had a chance. Saving the prairie dog is like saving criminals ( killers and murderers) from prosecution. Being politically correct is a nice way to cover up what is not realistic.

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  5. 5. JDW 9:57 am 02/9/2009

    One of these days a big hand will swoop in from outer space and pluck the earth from orbit! Then the exclamation, "Whew this one’s infested with humans!" Then the earth will get squished like a rotten grape!
    This metaphorically might be the reaction to the way we treat our home planet. The Human race is the most destructive and disruptive organism on the planet. We are in fact the biggest threat to ourselves. The prairie dog is not a threat to our existence but rather an enrichment of it! Sadly we are destroying species that don’t demonstrate and immediate short term economic benefit. The prairie dogs coexisted with buffalo, Native Americans and their environment long before we showed up! Maybe we should figure out what we are doing wrong!

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  6. 6. lmz 7:28 am 04/12/2009

    I’m always amazed at people who advocate the extinction of a species because they are some minor nuisance for some people. So depressing. At least hotblack and JDW are reasonable.

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  7. 7. peaadams 5:24 am 11/23/2009

    Read Terry Tempest William’s latest book "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" and be ready for great change on how you think of Prairie Dogs and our own humanity.

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