Image: Black-footed prairie dog
A black-footed prairie dog is near its burrow. On Monday, WildEarth Guardians is releasing its annual report card on the efforts made over the past year by three federal agencies and a dozen states to protect prairie dogs.
updated 2/1/2009 6:50:14 PM ET 2009-02-01T23:50:14

While groundhogs will get all the attention Monday, a report being issued by an environmental group says their cousins, the prairie dogs, are in dire straits across the West.

WildEarth Guardians says in its report to be released Monday that North America's five species of prairie dogs have lost more than 90 percent of their historical range because of habitat loss, shooting and poisoning.

It grades three federal land management agencies and a dozen states on their actions over the past year to protect prairie dogs and their habitat.

Not one received an A.

Arizona improved its grade
Most grades even dropped from the previous year, but Arizona improved to a B — the highest grade of all the states in prairie dog country. That state reintroduced 74 black-tailed prairie dogs to a small southeast parcel in October.

New Mexico, home to the Gunnison's prairie dog and black-tailed prairie dog, earned a D — the same as last year — because, the group said, state wildlife officials weren't actively conserving prairie dogs.

"It's hard to see the prairie dogs that are missing when you drive across the West because our modern society has no perception about what it was like before we started poisoning prairie dogs," said Lauren McCain, WildEarth Guardians' desert and grassland projects director.

McCain said prairie dogs are an important part of a grassland ecosystem. They are food for hawks, golden eagles, foxes and endangered black-footed ferrets, and their burrows offer shelter for a variety of other species.

McCain said all the animals need federal endangered species protections.

Of the five species, the Utah prairie dog is classified as threatened and the Mexican prairie dog as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued preliminary findings that the black- and white-tailed prairie dogs may warrant federal protection, and the Gunnison's prairie dog is a candidate for protection in part of its range.

Until Arizona's reintroduction, the animals had not been seen in that state for nearly 50 years.

"We're really pleased with the success to the point where we're getting the process ready to start another reintroduction," said James Driscoll, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist.

Prairie dogs considered varmints by some
Many people in the West, especially ranchers, consider prairie dogs varmints that destroy grass and cause erosion.

McCain said misperception has resulted in wasteful government programs. She said various agencies have financed and encouraged the poisoning of prairie dogs for years while other agencies pump millions of dollars into recovery efforts aimed at other species that rely on the prairie dog.

"We're hoping that the report card will highlight some of the these inconsistencies in government management of wildlife," McCain said. "These are species that we really do need to protect instead of wasting taxpayer dollars, which is a big concern for a lot of people."

Of the federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management received the lowest grade: D-minus, the same as last year. The report accuses the agency of exempting energy development companies from complying with rules that would protect prairie dog colonies and habitat.

Bill Merhege, deputy state BLM director for lands and resources in New Mexico, said the agency takes numerous steps, such as moving well pads and roads to avoid prairie dog colonies and prohibiting prairie dog control on land it manages.

"We do what we can on public lands," Merhege said. "Unfortunately, with interspersed landownership, what you do on one section doesn't necessarily follow through on another."

The group graded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at C, up from D the previous year, while the U.S. Forest Service stayed at D.

The group gave an F grade to Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota. Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Utah got D grades, and Wyoming earned a D-plus.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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