Animal advocates and conservationists are fighting to stop the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) from poisoning thousands of black-tailed prairie dogs who live on the Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming.
The prairie dog management plan was put in place years ago, setting aside 85,000 acres where prairie dogs would be protected from poisons and shooting, but complaints from ranchers have led the USFS to propose going backwards and amend the plan to allow prairie dogs to be poisoned within a quarter of a mile of private or state land.
The management strategy was originally intended to promote ecological diversity and ensure prairie dogs and other species had a safe space to live, but the new plan would in effect take away 22,000 acres of this protected land and end up killing an estimated 16,000 prairie dogs, according to a joint press release from the organizations opposing the agency’s proposal, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians.
Unfortunately, prairie dog numbers have already been reduced by habitat loss and disease and because they are often seen as pests who need to be destroyed. According to the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, these prairie dogs now only exist on an estimated two percent of their former range.
Living in colonies known as “towns,” prairie dogs are considered a keystone species who are vital to the health of prairie ecosystems. Their disappearance will affect numerous other species who rely on them as a food source and as habitat developers for species who take advantage of abandoned burrows, including burrowing owls, raptors, swift foxes and badgers, among others. According to the Prairie Dog Coalition, as many as 140 species are believed to be affected by the role of the black-tailed prairie dog in North America.
Prairie dog advocates are opposing the proposal, not only because prairie dogs are important, but because adding more poison to the government’s wildlife management toolbox is dangerous and unacceptable. Using poison is a sickeningly cruel method for dealing with wild animals that results in a horrific death and has no place on our public lands. The use of poison also poses a threat to other non-target species as it moves through the food chain.
“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.
Killing prairie dogs and using poison will also impact the recovery plan for black-footed ferrets, who have been brought back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding programs. Thunder Basin National Grassland is believed to be one of the best places available for releasing more of them, and many believe one of the easiest ways to ensure the success of the recovery program is to work on prairie dog conservation efforts simultaneously.
The organizations fighting this proposal are calling on the USFS to adopt non-lethal management strategies that include building vegetative barriers to deter prairie dogs from expanding onto neighboring lands, relocating prairie dog colonies from boundary areas to protected areas away from private lands when necessary and offering incentives to private landowners to coexist with prairie dogs.
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