By the end of October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether the white-tailed prairie dog deserves consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The announcement comes as a surprise to some local ranchers who consider the prairie dog as plentiful as ever in Moffat County. But Fish and Wildlife has actually been involved in a two-year lawsuit regarding the prairie dog.
On Wednesday, Fish and Wildlife settled the suit with the Center for Native Ecosystems, a Denver nonprofit environmental organization, by agreeing to make a decision on the prairie dog by Oct. 31.
A decision to list the prairie dog could have strong consequences in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, which contain some of the last population strongholds in Colorado.
A listing would mean the Fish and Wildlife Service would institute stringent standards to protect prairie dog habitat. Ranchers would need permission from the agency before beginning any project in prairie dog habitat, whether that is digging a ditch or installing a fence.
But local ranchers say they haven't seen a change in prairie dog populations. Wanda Walker said she hasn't noticed any scarcity of prairie dogs on her ranch near Vermillion or on the range in other parts of the county. Nor does Randy Culverwell believe they will they disappear from his ranch anytime soon.
Nonetheless, three of the five prairie dog species in Colorado have been approved for protection by Fish and Wildlife, and one more species is under consideration.
The Mexican prairie dog is listed as endangered, the Utah prairie dog is listed as threatened, a petition has been filed to protect the Gunnison prairie dog, and the black-tailed prairie dog is awaiting protection once funding is available.
Mike Albee, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake office, said the BLM has been monitoring the white-tailed prairie dog populations in Colorado. Depending on which population segment one looks at, prairie dogs are either declining, increasing or remaining stable, he said.
Sylvatic plague has had the greatest effect on white-tailed prairie dog populations, he said. Sylvatic plague was introduced to North America in the early 1900s, and now the disease moves around the state, wiping out population segments in different areas.
Plague is next to impossible to manage. That's why it's so important to control other factors that affect prairie dog populations, such as poisoning, sport shooting and natural resources and urban development, said Erin Robertson, a biologist with native ecosystems.
"Because plague is so difficult to deal with, it's more important to deal with human detriment," Robertson said.
Utah has a seasonal ban on shooting when prairie dogs have pups. Right now, Colorado has no limits on shooting, Robertson said.
But biologists with the Bureau of Land Management question the impact of the factors Robertson cited. Albee said he feels shooting has little to no impact on populations. Nor does he feel permitted public lands activities, such as oil and gas drilling and grazing, impact prairie dogs.
BLM wildlife biologist Ron Lambeth said there are far fewer prairie dogs in the Grand Junction area than 15 or even 10 years ago. Those who monitor these populations attribute the decline to suburban development around that city. But development segregates those populations from one another, an effect that seems to protect them from plague.
"Suburban sprawl removes their habitat. Plague can't rampage through isolated spots, so they're healthy until a bulldozer comes through," Lambeth said.
In Grand Junction, a citizen group is starting up to protect the white-tailed prairie dog, Lambeth said. And the BLM is developing a plan to manage prairie dog populations in the hopes that the animal won't need to be listed.
If the white-tailed prairie dog population were allowed to dwindle, it could adversely affect other animal populations, including furriginous hawks, which depend on them for food, and burrowing owls, which live in prairie dog holes.
Moreover, the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret has been complicated by instability in the white-tailed prairie dog population, Albee said. The black-footed ferret depends on the prairie dog for 100 percent of its food. When a prairie dog population crashed near Little Snake, plans to reintroduce the black-footed ferret there were postponed due to the sudden lack of food.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.