Prairie dog: Keystone species or local pest?

Fish and Wildlife Service decides against protections

DENVER – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently completed a 12-month review that concluded that protecting the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted.

Gunnison’s prairie dog populations are stable, largely because of conservation efforts by state game and fish agencies.

The Gunnison’s prairie dog lives in gently sloping, semi-desert grasslands and intermountain, shrub-steppe valleys in the Four Corners. The social rodent lives in colonies and constructs complex, underground burrows. Because prairie species such as the black-footed ferret and the burrowing owl depend on them for food and shelter, the Gunnison’s is considered a keystone species.

This summer, a group of concerned citizens approached the Montezuma County Commission requesting assistance in controlling the furry rodent, saying that its burrows injure livestock, it carries diseases, and it devours pastures. Commissioners decided not to help, saying that wildlife management was beyond their purview.

New genetic data support the recognition of two subspecies of Gunnison’s prairie dog: Cynomys gunnisoni gunnisoni, found in south-central Colorado and northeastern New Mexico; and C. g. zuniensis, found in southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Ranges of the subspecies overlap, as evidenced by their mixed genetic material.

Sylvatic plague and poisoning campaigns killed large numbers of Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Although plague, recreational shooting and poisoning still kill them, data reveal that the subspecies are stable and Gunnison’s prairie dog can withstand such impacts.

Colorado game and fish agencies, continue to implement successful conservation efforts. States have enforced shooting closures and dusted colonies with insecticide. Further, they are testing the plague vaccine.