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Archive for Friday, October 8, 1999

PRAIRIE DOG WAR TRENCHES BEING DUG

October 8, 1999

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What some view as a pest, others say is a vital part of the prairie ecosystem.

The battle over prairie dogs on the Great Plains is heating up.

Two environmental groups want the animals placed on the federal list of threatened species.

But Kansas and 10 other states have filed objections, saying states can protect the prairie dog population better than the federal government.

The Predator Conservation Alliance, based in Bozeman, Mont., and the National Wildlife Federation have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the black tailed prairie dog.

The "threatened" designation sought means a species is in decline and that, unless steps are taken to safeguard it, extinction could loom.

Kansas wildlife officials themselves want to protect the prairie dogs.

"What we have told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is, 'Let us work out strategies to ensure their survival,' " said Kansas Secretary of Wildlife and Parks Steve Williams. "We think that's a better strategy."

But Jonathan Proctor of the Predator Conservation Alliance, said the states only recently began taking that attitude and only in response to the environmentalists' petition to put prairie dogs on the federal list.

Historically, he said, state and local governments have had policies promoting eradication of prairie dogs as "pests."

Proctor, who was in Lawrence and Kansas City this week for a number of public presentations on prairie dogs, said that in western Kansas nearly every county has a law targeting prairie dogs as "pests" and requiring landowners to exterminate them.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks allows open hunting of prairie dogs throughout the year, with no limit on the number of animals a person can kill.

And until recently, the U.S. Forest Service routinely spread poison to kill off prairie dogs in national grasslands, while at the same time leasing the public lands to private ranchers for grazing.

Before settlement of the western United States, Proctor said, biologists believe prairie dogs inhabited over 250 million acres of the Great Plains. Today, they inhabit fewer than 750,000 acres.

But he admits that even with significantly diminished range, prairie dogs are in little danger of extinction because they reproduce so fast.

The real danger, he said, is to other species of mammals, reptiles and birds that depend on abandoned prairie dog burrows for habitat.

Joe Collins, director of the Lawrence-based Center for North American Amphibians and Reptiles, agreed that several species have disappeared or become endangered in Kansas, largely due to dwindling prairie dog towns.

"The environment in which a prairie dog lives is crucial to a lot of other wildlife," Collins said.

Most notable among them, he said, is the black-footed ferret, a predator now extinct in Kansas that used to keep prairie dog populations in check.

Other animals that live in and around prairie dog towns, Collins said, are burrowing owls, ornate box turtles, tiger salamanders, bull snakes and a wide variety of toads and lizards.

But Wildlife and Parks Secretary Williams said that is not a good enough reason to put an animal on the list of threatened species.

"The endangered species act is geared toward animals -- toward species," Williams said.

If the intent of listing the prairie dog as a threatened species is to protect the habitat and ecosystem, then the individual states are better able to do that than the federal government, Williams said.

-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is phancock@ljworld.com.

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