Utah seeks to delist the “threatened” prairie dog species and take over management of the creature

In this undated file photo released by Forest Guardians, a prairie dog eats in southwestern Utah. The species has been federally protected since the 1970s, and Utah wildlife managers are now taking steps to take control of 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 throughout southwestern Utah.

It is a rodent similar to squirrels, squirrels and marmots that can reach a few pounds in weight. The nonprofit conservation group NatureServe notes that there were 95,000 registered prairie dogs in the 1920s. That number has dropped to a few thousand as the region’s development, drought and other factors have altered 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 its small population continued to decline and they had been plans were put in place to poison the remaining animals. .

“The mandate was to prevent extinction and recover the species,” he 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 upswing. The US Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded it to “threatened” in 1984, where it remains to this day. Biologists at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources count Utah’s prairie dogs each spring, finding, on average, 5,760 individuals — 2.5 times the population in 1971.

However, Hersey explains that because a peak summer population is often seven times the spring count estimate, Utah’s prairie dog population is closer to 40,000 total as its recovery continues.

This upswing is why Utah wildlife managers are now prepared to ask the federal government to de-list the species, which would shift management of the species to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The division on Tuesday unveiled a proposed plan that will replace current federal regulations if the Utah prairie dog is removed from the endangered species list.

The document says Utah will continue to monitor Utah’s prairie dog populations and work to kill plague-carrying fleas inside burrows. It would also require surveys prior to any new development in the region, “even relocating prairie dogs from those development areas to public lands with suitable habitats.” Other jobs require the removal of predators from “areas with small, vulnerable colonies.”

The division is also looking to amend the process that allows residents to remove or kill any animal considered a nuisance, meaning there would still be a process to legally kill a prairie dog in some cases and unlawful kills 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 is a system in place to regulate agricultural permits.

“The plan will continue to manage the population through ongoing monitoring, while also helping to address concerns and conflicts with private landowners over possible harm,” Hersey said in a statement Tuesday. “We are proposing to make some changes to the current rule regarding the trapping of prairie dogs in situations where there is conflict, while maintaining a healthy population and ongoing conservation efforts.”

In a video explaining the proposal, he also acknowledged that the shift from federal to state control probably won’t happen overnight. However, changes may occur in the coming years.

A Utah prairie dog sits in a cage before being fitted with a GPS collar by biologists at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City on Wednesday, August 29, 2018. The species is found in southwestern Utah, while two other species similar ones can be found in eastern Utah.
A Utah prairie dog sits in a cage before being fitted with a GPS collar by biologists at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City on Wednesday, August 29, 2018. The species is found in southwestern Utah, while two other species similar ones can be found in eastern Utah. (Photo: Marc Weaver, KSL-TV)

Managing Utah prairie dogs will likely require some sort of strategy due to the time the species has spent on the endangered species list and the potential repercussions if the species is not protected in any way. Hersey points out that there are “continuing problems” regarding damage to agriculture, diseases that species can carry that cause human health problems, and restrictions that have delayed development projects in the region.

All of this took into account attempts to limit protections in the past. For example, in 2018 the US Fish and Wildlife Service relaxed some of its regulations on Utah’s prairie dogs, which led to a lawsuit from the Friends of Animals group.

Hersey said there would be tools put in place to “encourage” coexistence between humans and prairie dogs, such as habitat treatment projects.

Prairie dog-human interactions are also why over the years there has been a growing attempt to move the species to federally protected land — such as national parks — as a way to keep the dog’s population growing. of the Utah prairie while minimizing human impacts. Nearly half of Utah’s estimated prairie dog population is now found on public or protected lands, according to statistics from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

In recent years, biologists have also sought to establish more prairie dog colonies in high-elevation locations because there is often more water- and moisture-rich soil in mountains than in low-elevation valleys. This is something that has happened as drought conditions continue to impact southwest 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 council is expected to vote on the issue at its meeting on Jan. 3, 2023. Those who are for or against the idea can provide their comments on the plan through the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 20.

If approved, the plan won’t go into effect until the federal government drops the species from Endangered Species Act projections. Since it’s unclear when that could happen, there’s no real timetable for when the plan would begin Utah management.

Hersey explained that some additional steps are required once a plan is approved. The division will seek a memorandum of understanding with various groups, including local counties and federal agencies, before there is a formal request with the US 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 remove the species from the list.

“We know this … will probably take several years (to happen),” he said. “In the meantime, we will continue to have conservation actions for the species and hopefully continue to see success.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning general news, outdoor, history and sports reporter for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He’s a Utah transplant out of Rochester, New York.

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