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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

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

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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

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

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