In this undated file photo released by Forest Guardians, a prairie dog in southwestern Utah eats. The species has been under federal protection since the 1970s, and Utah wildlife managers are now taking steps to control the species in the future. (Associated Press)
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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah prairie dog – a species found only in southwestern Utah – used to roam all over southwestern Utah.
It is a rodent similar to squirrels, chipmunks and marmots and can weigh several kilograms. The non-profit conservation group NatureServe notes that there were 95,000 prairie dogs registered in the 1920s. That number dropped to just a few thousand as the region’s development, drought and other factors have changed its habitat.
Kimberly Hersey, mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, points out that the species first received federal protection through the Endangered Species Act in 1973, as the small population continued to decline and plans were underway to remove the remaining animals. to poison. .
“The mandate was to prevent extinction and restore the species,” she said, noting that there were only a few exceptions that allowed Utahns to kill a Utah prairie dog.
Since then, the species has been on the rise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as “threatened” in 1984, where it remains to this day. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists count Utah prairie dogs each spring and find an average of 5,760 individuals — 2½ times the 1971 population.
However, Hersey explains that since a summer peak population is often seven times higher than the spring count estimate, Utah’s prairie dog population totals closer to 40,000 as recovery progresses.
This recovery is why Utah wildlife managers are now willing to ask the federal government to delist the species, which would transfer management of the species to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The division unveiled a proposed plan Tuesday that would replace current federal regulations if the Utah prairie dog were removed from the endangered species list.
The document stated that Utah would continue to monitor Utah prairie dog populations and work to kill pest-carrying fleas in burrows. Surveys would also be needed before any new development in the region, while also requiring “moving prairie dogs from those development areas to public lands with suitable habitat.” Other work calls for removing predators from “areas with small, vulnerable colonies.”
The division is also trying to change the process that allows residents to remove or kill animals deemed a nuisance, meaning that in some cases there would still be a process to legally kill a prairie dog and that illegal killings would be subject to state poaching. laws. Residents would not need a permit if the animal is in their home or on their property, but there would be a system in place to regulate farming permits.
“The plan will continue to manage the population through ongoing monitoring, while also helping to address concerns and conflicts with private landowners over potential harm,” Hersey said in a statement Tuesday. “We are proposing to make some changes to the current rule regarding taking prairie dogs in situations where there is conflict, while still maintaining a healthy population and ongoing conservation efforts.”
In a video explaining the proposal, she also acknowledged that the switch from federal to state control is unlikely to happen overnight. However, the changes may take place in the coming years.
Prairie dog management in Utah likely requires some sort of strategy because of the time the species has spent on the endangered species list and the potential consequences if the species is not protected in any way. Hersey points out there are “ongoing problems” related to damage to agriculture, diseases the species can carry that are causing human health concerns and restrictions that have slowed development projects in the region.
These all took into account past attempts to limit protections. For example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service relaxed some of its prairie dog rules in Utah in 2018which led to a lawsuit from the Friends of Animals group.
Hersey said tools would be put in place to “encourage” coexistence between humans and prairie dogs, such as habitat treatment projects.
The human-prairie dog interactions are also why there have been increasing efforts over the years to move the species into federally protected lands, such as national parks, as a way to grow the prairie dog population in Utah while minimizing human impact. Nearly half of Utah’s estimated prairie dog population is now on public or protected land, according to statistics from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Biologists have also tried in recent years to create more prairie dog colonies in high elevations because there is often more water and moisture rich soil in the mountains than in the lower valleys. This is something that happened while drought conditions continue to affect southwestern Utah, Hersey said.
The division’s proposal will go through a public comment period before the Utah Wildlife Board votes to approve the plan. The board is expected to vote on the issue at its meeting on January 3, 2023. Those in favor or against the idea can comment on the plan. via the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website until 11:59 PM on December 20.
If approved, the plan still won’t go into effect until the federal government removes the species from Endangered Species Act projections. Since it’s unclear when that might happen, there’s no real time frame for the start of Utah’s management plan.
Hersey explained that a few extra steps are needed once a plan is approved. The division will seek a memorandum of understanding with various groups, including local counties and federal agencies, before submitting a formal request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the current status of the Utah prairie dog. The federal agency will ultimately decide whether to maintain existing protections or to remove the species from the list.
“We know that this … will probably take several years (to happen),” she said. “In the meantime, we will continue with conservation efforts for the species — and hopefully continue to see success.”