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Conservation groups blast USFS plan to poison thousands of prairie dogs

Lone black-tailed prairie dog near burrow

The little underdog of the prairie hasn’t stood a chance against the ignorant disdain of humans and their agricultural development for more than a century.

Action by environmentalists to protect prairie dogs from ranchers and deep-pocketed special interest groups like the Cattlemen’s Association and the Farm Bureau have been unsuccessful for years, though their numbers barely register above 2 percent of the original population first estimated by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming has long been a battlefield between conservationists, who want to protect one of the largest prairie dog towns remaining in the wild and the US Forest Service’s “management” of the colony, under political pressure and a handful of influential landowners.

According to a statement from Defenders of Wildlife, “In 2009, after years of planning and public input, officials set aside 85,000 acres in the Thunder Basin National Grassland as an area where prairie dogs would be protected from poisons and shooting. Today, this area contains the best prairie dog habitat on any National Grassland in America.”

But currently, the USFS wants to amend its previous plan and shrink the protected area by 22,000 acres, which would result in approximately 16,000 prairie dogs within a quarter mile border of privately owned land—being poisoned and shot.

Jason A Lillegraven, scientist and emeritus professor at the University of Wyoming submitted a letter to the USFS asking it to base their decision on science, rather than the ignorance of a few anti-prairie dog zealots.

Lillegraven noted the myths and erroneous concepts still held by the most obstinate prairie dog opponents in this statement:

Although knowledge of biological systems is now much more widespread within the ranching community than in prior decades, there still exist a dedicated few who cling to archaic, erroneous concepts such as that 1) prairie dogs destroy all ground cover in its habitat, 2) such destruction causes soil erosion leading to increased sediment in streams causing poor habitat for fish, 3) loss of ground cover is detrimental to feed for livestock and wildlife, 4) prairie dog populations are progressively increasing, and 5) therefore, we need to expand controlling activities such as poisoning and ‘recreational’ shooting of the animals to reduce their numbers and spatial distribution.

These few zealots have even attempted to have such concerns codified within Wyoming legislation. They appear to have little concern over long-term influences upon soil health or the very existence of other species having obligate dependence upon viable populations of prairie dogs — and collectively define what a prairie ecosystem actually is.

In addition to barraging the USFS with comments, four wildlife conservation groups have joined together in asking the USFS to consider an alternate plan. The organizations involved are the US Humane Society, WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

“The Forest Service has to find a non-lethal and humane way to manage prairie dogs on Thunder Basin rather than spending taxpayer dollars on poison,” said Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the HSUS’s Prairie Dog Coalition. “The public and our nation’s wildlife deserve better.”

Although many non-lethal methods are available to manage prairie dog populations, it is common for landowners and agencies to use poison and open shooting as the barbaric path of least resistance.

Relocating prairie dogs would be a more humane and in many cases, less costly solution. Installing vegetation barriers and offering incentives to impacted landowners are also non-lethal options to manage boundaries at Thunder Basin.

Shooting prairie dogs with lead bullets or killing them with poison are always bad ideas that are not only torturous to the animal, but often result in secondary deaths after predators consume lifeless prairie dog bodies.

“These dangerous poisons shouldn’t be used anywhere, much less in one of our last best grasslands,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

The extermination of so many prairie dogs would also delay the introduction of black-footed ferrets into Thunder Basin, which is one of the most critically endangered mammals on the planet.

Prairie dogs are critical to wildlife ecosystems across the North American Great Plains, because they are a keystone species upon which over 100 other species depend on for survival, but they continually remain at the mercy of federal agencies controlled more by misleading community influence and politics than science.

The USFS proposed plan is in the initial stages. The draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) is expected in June,with comment periord. The final EIS is expected in October, followed by a 45-day comment/objection period.

According to Prairie Dog Coalition director, Lindsey Sterling Krank, via phone, the USFS received 85,000 comments on this issue prior to January 4.

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