OPINION: The Ecological and Political Importance of the White-tailed Prairie Dog
By Matt Sandler and Megan Mueller
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced yesterday that the imperiled white-tailed prairie dog will not be granted the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
The white-tailed prairie dog is an indicator of healthy wildlife populations in the sagebrush sea of the west. Many animals depend on prairie dogs for food and shelter, including endangered black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and ferruginous hawks. Prairie-dog communication is complex, and they are one of the few species that scientists believe have language.
Once ranging throughout western Colorado, eastern Utah, Wyoming, and south-central Montana, the prairie dog has declined by over 92% throughout its range. Oil and gas drilling, disease, shooting, and poisoning have taken their toll.
“White-tailed prairie dogs are so important to other imperiled western wildlife,” said Megan Mueller, Senior Conservation Biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “As prairie dogs decline due to plague and unprecedented levels of oil and gas drilling, this puts many other wildlife species at risk.”
Political interference has kept white-tailed prairie dogs from getting the protection they need for years. In a court settlement signed in 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to overturn a politically motivated decision denying the white-tailed prairie dog consideration as an endangered species, after the USFWS admitted that Julie MacDonald, a Bush administration political appointee in the Interior Department with no biological training, overruled agency biologists to deny protecting the white-tailed prairie dog and other species under the Endangered Species Act.
In a June 21, 2007 Memo, the Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the denial of protections for the prairie dog “only occurred at Ms. MacDonald’s direction” and that the Service recommended moving forward with a status review. The settlement agreement required the USFWS to conduct a new status review and determination of whether ESA protection was necessary by 2010. The USFWS again decided to deny the species protection. A coalition of conservation organizations led by Rocky Mountain Wild sued over that decision and won, and a judge ordered the USFWS to again consider the species for protection.
“The USFWS decision to again deny the white-tailed prairie dog the protection of the Endangered Species Act comes as Endangered Species Act listings stall, national monuments are attacked and public lands are being opened up to more oil and gas drilling under the Trump administration,” said Matt Sandler, Staff Attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “The white-tailed prairie dog will continue to suffer declines as politics and profits continue to trump science.”