Office of External Affairs
Mountain-Prairie Region

NEWS RELEASE

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mountain-Prairie Region
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

For Release on April 25, 2012
Contact:  Laura Romin (801) 975-3330 x 142

U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE REVISES THE PROPOSED RULE AND ISSUES A DRAFT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT TO AMEND TAKE ALLOWANCES FOR THE UTAH PRAIRIE DOG

 

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notified the public of the release of a final revised Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Plan and are also considering changes to our proposed 4(d) special rule of June 2, 2011, to revise the special rule for the Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens). 

The original recovery plan for the Utah prairie dog was approved in 1991.  Since that time, we have collected new scientific information and established new partnerships through which we believe recovery will be successful.  The revised plan describes actions considered necessary for the species’ recovery, establishes criteria for delisting, and estimates the time and cost for implementing recovery actions.  A draft version of the revised recovery plan was released in September 2010 for public and peer review comments.  All comments were considered and incorporated as appropriate into our final revised Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Plan. The final revised Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Plan can be viewed here: http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/UTprairiedog/index.htm

We are reopening the comment period for the 4(d) special rule because we are considering changes to our proposed rule based on public and peer review comments received.  We are also making available for public review the draft Environmental Assessment on our proposed actions, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The existing special rule which we propose to amend was established in 1991.  The public will have 30 days to comment on the proposed changes and the draft Environmental Assessment.

“The proposed amendment will provide for the conservation and recovery of the Utah prairie dog.  If finalized, landowners would benefit from take allowances for standard agricultural practices.  Local communities would also benefit from the ability to control prairie dogs in areas where human safety or the sanctity of human burial sites is a concern.” said Stephen Guertin, Regional Director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region. 

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Secretary may develop a “special rule” that specifies protections deemed necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the species.  When the Utah prairie dog was downlisted to threatened, we issued a special rule applying all of the ESA’s prohibitions to Utah prairie dog, except: take of up to 5,000 animals was allowed annually between June 1 and December 31 in Iron County, Utah.   In 1991, we amended the special rule to allow regulated take of up to 6,000 animals annually between June 1 and December 31 on agricultural lands throughout the species’ range. 

These rules were intended to relieve population pressures in overcrowded portions of the range that could not otherwise be relieved.  The rules indicated that agricultural practices were making the habitat more productive than it was historically, thus allowing the prairie dog population to achieve unnaturally high densities.  The rules also concluded that removing individuals during summer when populations were highest would reduce competition in overpopulated areas resulting in increased overwinter survival among remaining animals.  Finally, these rules indicated control was needed to minimize impacts to agricultural operations and prevent widespread illegal killing by frustrated farmers.

Under the existing special rule, take is permitted by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR).  The UDWR has never authorized the current rule’s maximum allowed take and has exercised caution to ensure any permitted take is consistent with the species’ recovery needs.  For the most part, this proposal would institutionalize existing UDWR practice regarding:  where permitted take can occur; the amount of take that can be permitted; and methods of take that can be permitted.  A new incidental take exemption is also proposed for otherwise legal activities associated with standard agricultural practices.  We also propose to allow take of Utah prairie dogs in areas of serious human safety hazards or where they disturb the sanctity of human burial sites. We would need to certify that reasonable efforts have been made to fence out, trap and translocate prairie dogs within the area before lethal removal of the animals would be permissible by the affected landowner.

Public comments or data on the proposed rule will be accepted until May 29, 2012.  Comments or data can be submitted: electronically via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at: http://www.regulations.gov (search the docket for FWS-R6-ES-2011-0030), or can be mailed or hand delivered to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2011-0030; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.

A copy of the proposed rule, the draft Environmental Assessment, and other information about the Utah prairie dog is available on the Internet at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/UTprairiedog/index.htm or by contacting Utah Field Office at 2369 West Orton Circle, West Valley City, Utah 84119 (telephone 801/975 3330; facsimile 801/975‑3331.  The proposed rule is published in today’s Federal Register.

The Utah prairie dog is the western most member of the genus Cynomys and has the most restricted range of the four prairie dog species in the United States.  Historically, the species’ distribution included portions of Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier, Washington, and Wayne Counties.  Utah prairie dog populations began to decline when control programs were initiated in the 1920s, and by the 1960s the species’ distribution was greatly reduced as a result of poisoning, sylvatic plague (a nonnative disease), drought, and habitat alteration induced by agricultural and grazing activities.  Today, Utah prairie dogs are limited to the central and southwestern quarter of Utah in portions of seven counties -- Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Piute, Sevier, and Wayne Counties

The Utah prairie dog was listed as an endangered species in 1973.  In 1984, we reclassified the species as threatened.  Primary threats are habitat loss from urban development and loss of prairie dog colonies from plague outbreaks. 

Utah prairie dog populations are stable to increasing.  Recent population estimates are among the highest recorded since listing.  Specifically, five of the seven highest years recorded since 1985 have occurred since 2005. 

As a keystone species, prairie dogs have a large effect on the ecosystem.  Prairie dogs decrease vegetation height and increase landscape heterogeneity.  Burrowing and excavation mixes the soil and promotes uptake of nitrogen by plants.  The burrow and mound systems change soil chemistry by increasing the porosity of the soil to allow deep penetration of precipitation, and increasing the incorporation of organic materials into the soil.  Several wildlife species such as burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), rabbits (Lepus spp.), ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.), weasels (Mustela spp.), and badgers (Taxidea taxus) also rely on the habitat conditions created by Utah prairie dog colonies, and frequently use their burrows.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/. Connect with our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/USFWSMountainPrairie, follow our tweets at http://twitter.com/USFWSMtnPrairie, watch our YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/usfws and download photos from our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/

-FWS-