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The Mountain-Prairie Region

NEWS RELEASE

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

Date: March 23, 1999

Pete Gober 605-224-8693, x24 (available at this number on 3/26)
Sharon Rose 303-236-7917, x 415
Skip Ladd 303-236-7862, x 282 (available at this number on 3/24)

U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE TO CONDUCT
COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OF BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG STATUS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a comprehensive review of the black-tailed prairie dog over the next nine months to determine whether the species should be proposed for listing as an endangered or threatened species.

The Service made the determination in response to petitions filed by the National Wildlife Federation in July and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in August. Under the Act, the Service was required to review the petitions to decide whether they contained substantial information supporting a full review of the species.

The Service will complete the comprehensive review before making any decision whether to propose to list the black-tailed prairie dog. To ensure that the review of the species is as complete and comprehensive as possible, the Service is asking the public to submit any additional scientific information.

"This is the first step in a long scientific process to review the status of the species," said Ralph Morgenweck, the Service’s Regional Director the Rocky Mountain Region. "What we are saying today is that the two petitions contained enough substantial information to warrant a more comprehensive look at the species. Our review will include all available information, not just what was in the petitions, including additional information submitted by other government agencies, scientists and the public."

The black-tailed prairie dog is a small, stout ground squirrel that measures 14 to 17 inches long and weighs 1 to 3 pounds. It is found in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, southern Saskatchewan, Canada and northern Mexico. Historically, the species also inhabited Arizona but no longer occurs there. The occupied range of the prairie dog has declined by approximately 95 percent in the United States during the last century, with less than 1 million acres remaining of what may have been more than 100 million acres of original black-tailed prairie dog habitat.

The petitioners cited a decline of the black-tailed prairie dog due to many factors, including prairie dog control programs and the conversion of rangeland to crop land. Based on the information available to the Service for this preliminary finding, biologists believe the greatest threat to the species may be sylvatic plague, an introduced disease that is lethal to prairie dogs. However, poisoning, unregulated shooting, legislatively mandated eradication programs, and the destruction and modification of habitat also may be significant factors affecting black-tailed prairie dog populations.

Colorado’s Division of Wildlife called a March 17 meeting of all of the affected State wildlife agencies, Federal land management agencies and Tribes to begin the development of a rangewide conservation strategy for the black-tailed prairie dog. "The Service commends the leadership efforts of Colorado’s Division of Wildlife and fully supports their efforts. I also was pleased to meet with representatives of South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, including wildlife and agriculture agencies in December to discuss the prairie dog. I am committed to working with Federal and State agencies, Tribes, and other partners to conserve the prairie dog and the short and mixed-grass prairie ecosystem,"said Morgenweck.

Five species of prairie dogs exist in North America: the black-tailed prairie dog, white-tailed prairie dog, Gunnison’s prairie dog, Utah prairie dog, and the Mexican prairie dog. Black-tailed prairie dog complexes can contain thousands of individuals and extend for miles. Today, seven black-tailed prairie dog complexes larger than 10,000 acres still exist. These seven colonies represent about 36 percent of all remaining occupied black-tailed prairie dog habitat in North America. Four of these large colonies are located in South Dakota where plague is absent at this time. The remaining three large complexes are located in Montana, Wyoming and Mexico. Six of the seven large colonies are located on federal and tribal lands and are believed to be the most viable and important populations of the species.

The prairie dog plays a key role in the short-grass prairie ecosystem. Their presence increases both animal and plant diversity. The black-tailed prairie dog provides important habitat for and is prey for many species. The endangered black-footed ferret, thought to be extinct just a few years ago, relies almost solely on the black-tailed prairie dog for food. Ferruginous hawks, eagles, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, swift fox and many other species rely on prairie dog towns and the grasslands they inhabit for food and shelter. In some seasons, even cattle and bison prefer to graze on grasses in prairie dog towns over undisturbed prairie lands.

Prairie dogs are not prolific compared to other species of rodents. Female black-tailed prairie dogs do not breed until their second year and usually live 3 to 5 years. They produce a single litter annually, usually of 4 to 5 pups. Depending on such factors as habitat and nutrition, one adult female prairie dog produces from three to 20 young in its lifetime. By comparison, a meadow mouse can begin breeding at 3 weeks of age, can have up to 17 litters per year, and produce up to 83 young before 1 year of age. Nevertheless, prairie dog colonies can expand rapidly in some circumstances, such as the presence of drought and heavy grazing, and in the absence of disease.

To ensure that the review of the species is as complete and comprehensive as possible, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking the public to send any additional scientific information on the black-tailed prairie dog. Additional information on the black-tailed prairie dog should be postmarked by May 24, 1999 and mailed to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (BTPD), 420 South Garfield Ave., Suite 400, Pierre, SD 56501-5408.

For more information on this species, please see the Service’s web site at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/mammals/btprairiedog

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprising more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.


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