WildEarth Guardians filed suit this week challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) refusal to protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service denied the species protection despite a documented 95 percent decline since the early 1900s and numerous serious ongoing threats.
Guardians’ legal team filed suit challenging the Service’s failure to use the best available science, properly consider the ESA’s five listing factors, or consider the historic range of the species, among other failings. Ongoing urban and oil and gas development, shooting, poisoning, outbreaks of sylvatic plague, drought and climate change all pose significant threats to the species and its habitat.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is suffering from a serious case of ecological amnesia: ignoring dramatic declines in both the range and population of Gunnison’s prairie dogs and discounting widespread threats,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Service needs to uphold its responsibility to protect and recover imperiled species.”
The Service’s decision ignores the enormous range-wide decline in Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the last 100 years and focuses solely on occupancy modeling of the remaining populations over just the last 3 to 6 years in only portions of the species’ habitat. Plague is also dismissed as a threat, though an outbreak can cause 99 percent mortality or completely wipe out a population in a single season.
Prairie dogs are “keystone” species: many other species benefit from prairie dogs and the habitat they create, including swift foxes, burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, and mountain plovers. The black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, preys only on prairie dogs. Gunnison’s prairie dogs are found in grassland habitats in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The Service found Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the montane portion of their range warranted for listing in 2008, and placed the species on the list of candidate species. In 2010, a court remanded that decision because the Service had improperly listed only a portion of the species, contrary to the plain language of the ESA. The recent finding—which came about as a result of Guardians’ historic settlement agreement compelling decisions for 251 candidate species—completely removed the species’ candidate status.