Mountain-Prairie Region
 

12-MONTH ADMINISTRATIVE FINDING, BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG

Chapter 1 - Table of Contents

1. SUMMARY OF SERVICE CONSIDERATIONS AND DECISIONS

1.1 Summary of 12-month Administrative Finding

1.2 Description of the Petition and Related Interests

1.3 Solicitation of Information for Status Review Subsequent to Positive 90-day Finding

1.4 Summary of Petitioner’s Comments

1.5 Summary of Comments of Biodiversity Legal Foundation, the Predator Project, and Jon C. Sharps 

1.6 Summary of State Agency Comments 

1.7 Summary of Tribal Comments 

1.8 Summary of Federal Agency Comments 

1.9 Summary of County Agency Comments 

1.10 Summary of Organization Comments 

1.11 Summary of Individual Comments 

1.12 Summary of Conservation Plans 

1.13 Summary of Comments on the States’ Draft Conservation Assessment and Strategy 


12-MONTH ADMINISTRATIVE FINDING, BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG

 

1. SUMMARY OF SERVICE CONSIDERATIONS AND DECISIONS

1.1 SUMMARY OF 12-MONTH ADMINISTRATIVE FINDING

The Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the current status of the black-tailed prairie dog warrants its listing as a Threatened species pursuant to section 4(b)(3)(A) the Endangered Species Act (Act) of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), subject to the approval of a final rule. This species has undergone significant reductions in its historic range and also in the amount of habitat within its remaining range which it presently occupies. Moreover, recent population trends indicate that its overall numbers are declining and will likely continue to decline within the foreseeable future within a significant portion of its range. Accordingly, the species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future in a significant portion of its range; the listing of the species as Threatened is appropriate at this time.

Notably, black-tailed prairie dog populations respond to disease impacts in aggregate with long-term depressant effects from which only limited recovery has been observed. Disease appears to be adversely affecting the species across a majority of its range and in areas where it was not observed a few years ago. Although there have been population increases in some areas in recent decades subsequent to the Executive Order that banned the use of some toxicants in 1972, there also have been significant reductions in many populations within the past 10-15 years. Overall, cumulative population totals and population trends for the species are declining across a majority of its range. Population declines have been due to—(1) previous and continuing adverse modifications of habitat, (2) localized overutilization for recreational purposes, (3) catastrophic disease impacts related to an exotic pathogen to which individuals of the species have little or no immunity and to which its populations are not resilient, (4) inadequate regulatory mechanisms that if modified could moderate other impacts, and (5) control efforts usually designed for the maximum degree of extirpation possible. The impact of these factors, separately and in combination with each other, on the species has varied through both time and space; however, at present, the major influences affecting the species appear to be disease and inadequate regulatory mechanisms.

1.2 DESCRIPTION OF THE PETITION AND RELATED INTERESTS

On July 31, 1998, the Service received a petition dated July 30, 1998, from the National Wildlife Federation (1998). The Petitioner requested that the Service list the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) as threatened throughout its range. The Petitioner also requested that the species be afforded emergency listing. Section 4 of the Act and regulations of 50 CFR 424 do not provide for petitions to request the listing of species on an emergency basis. However, provisions of the Act and the Service’s Listing Priority Guidance (63 FR 25502) direct that all petitions are to be reviewed to determine if an emergency listing is appropriate. The Service determined, and advised the Petitioner by letter dated August 27, 1998, that it would be inappropriate to list this species on an emergency basis given its then known status. The Service may revisit this issue if the immediacy or magnitude of threats increases such that the black-tailed prairie dog may require immediate protection through emergency listing. In September 1999, the Petitioner requested the Service to readdress this issue based on reports of increased control efforts (Graber, National Wildlife Federation, in litt. 1999). For example, a Federal prison near Denver, Colorado, reportedly controlled approximately 40 acres (16 hectares) of black-tailed prairie dog occupied habitat (area with existing prairie dog towns) to avoid potential future conflicts with the Act (Associated Press 1999). The Service is further reviewing this issue, but has not reached any conclusion at this time.

On August 26, 1998, the Service received another petition regarding the black-tailed prairie dog from the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, the Predator Project, and Jon C. Sharps (Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. 1998). They requested that the Service list the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened throughout its known historic range in the contiguous United States. The Service accepted this second request as supplemental information to the National Wildlife Federation petition.

The Petitioner and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) requested that the black-tailed prairie dog be considered for listing as threatened. However, if a species’ status warrants listing, the Service is responsible for determining a classification of threatened or endangered.

1.3 SOLICITATION OF INFORMATION FOR A STATUS REVIEW SUBSEQUENT TO A POSITIVE 90-DAY FINDING

A notice of a 90-day finding for the National Wildlife Federation petition regarding the black-tailed prairie dog was published in the Federal Register on March 25, 1999 (64 FR 14425), which indicated that it and other readily available scientific and commercial information presented substantial information that the petitioned action may be warranted. The notice also indicated that the Service would conduct a status review of the black-tailed prairie dog and requested that any additional information relevant to a proposed 12-month administrative finding be submitted to the Service by May 24, 1999. Notice of a reopening of the comment period for an additional 45 days was published in the Federal Register on June 4, 1999 (64 FR 29983). This additional comment period closed July 19, 1999. On October 4, 1999, the comment period was again reopened for additional comments, especially pertaining to a draft black-tailed prairie dog conservation assessment and strategy developed by various States and its potential influence on the status of the species. Notice of this reopening was published in the Federal Register (64 FR 53655). This comment period closed November 3, 1999.

The Service has made an effort to keep interested agencies and organizations informed of status review activities. Copies of all available references pertinent to various States were sent to appropriate Service Field Offices and State Wildlife Agencies. Copies of all references cited in the 90-day finding were sent to appropriate Service Regional Offices, Service Washington Office, the Petitioner, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, and the Colorado Association of Home Builders. Several responses were provided to Freedom of Information Act requests from the National Wildlife Federation and the Colorado Association of Home Builders. Copies of the Federal Register notice regarding the 90-day finding were sent to appropriate State, tribal, and Federal entities. Copies of the 90-day finding were requested by and sent to approximately 50 entities. Numerous requests for specific references were accommodated. The Service staff attended several meetings regarding the petition with State, tribal, and Federal Agencies and other interested parties. The Service also provided comments on several drafts of the States’ Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Assessment and Strategy (Strategy). A population viability analysis has been initiated with participation from experts in several fields of study relevant to the black-tailed prairie dog. A peer review group was established to evaluate portions of this finding. Individual contacts have been made by telephone with affected State Wildlife Agencies, State Department of Agriculture Offices, Tribes, and other State and local organizations in an effort to obtain all relevant information related to the species.

The Service received approximately 14,500 comments during the development of this finding. This is an extraordinarily large number of comments for a single action, which has translated into a large workload for the Service in reviewing and evaluating them. It was not possible to answer each of these individually, nor was it possible to respond to them categorically in this finding since a thorough content analysis and classification was not conducted. However, pertinent and substantive information provided in these comments was considered and is reflected herein. The following summaries describe the sources and general content of various information received by the Service.

1.4 SUMMARY OF PETITIONER’S COMMENTS

The National Wildlife Federation addressed the following subjects in its petition: the biology and ecology of the black-tailed prairie dog, the current status of the species based upon criteria specified in the Act, the Service policies and findings regarding the species, and the use of the Acts’s emergency powers to list the species (National Wildlife Federation 1998). The Petitioner’s views on these subjects are summarized below:

! The biology and ecology of the black-tailed prairie dog.

The Petitioner presented extensive information regarding the biology of the black-tailed prairie dog. This information included a description of the species and its range, as well as comments related to the dynamics of its population biology.

The Petitioner described the black-tailed prairie dog as a colonial ground squirrel that is one of five species in the genus Cynomys, all of which occur in western North America. The range of the black-tailed prairie dog was described as extending from the most southerly portion of Saskatchewan, Canada; through the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico; through the southwestern portion of North Dakota; in the western and central portions of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma; in the western, northwestern, and northern portions of Texas; and in the northeastern portion of Mexico. The Petitioner noted the species as present historically in eastern Arizona, but as extirpated in recent years.

The Petitioner noted that the species still occurs intermittently throughout most of its historic range, although much reduced in numbers and in the amount of habitat that it occupies. The Petitioner contrasted reports that the black-tailed prairie dog once occupied as much as 100-200 million acres (40-80 million hectares) of the western North American prairie with current estimates of occupied habitat and concluded that the species’ habitat has been reduced by at least 99 percent.

! The current status of the black-tailed prairie dog.

The Petitioner addressed the criteria for listing evaluations noted in the Act. The Petitioner attributed reductions in occupied habitat to habitat loss and degradation related to the conversion of prairie grasslands to cropland, extensive control, disease, urban development, unregulated shooting, and other factors.

The Petitioner asserted that the small size and widely spaced distribution of most remaining black-tailed prairie dog colonies create concerns regarding the adverse influences of habitat fragmentation, dispersal limitations, and other factors on the viability of the species. It also asserted that the cumulative effect of these and other factors increases the probability of extinction for the species. It acknowledged that the number of individual black-tailed prairie dogs appeared to be significant when compared with many other species that are not thought to be in danger of extinction, but asserted that the species is threatened as evidenced by (and due to) its precipitous historic population decline, its recent population declines, and the number and variety of threats to it.

The Petitioner asserted that all States within the range of the black-tailed prairie dog have classified it as a pest for agricultural purposes, either permitting or requiring eradication of the species. It also asserted that these States allow or promote unlimited recreational shooting. The Petitioner noted that there are inconsistent Federal policies regarding all species of prairie dogs and that the legal mechanisms under which they have declined remain in place. The Petitioner asserted that some Tribes have a sophisticated management program for the black-tailed prairie dog and play an important role in its conservation.

! Service policies and findings regarding the species (according to the Petitioner).

The Petitioner noted guidelines developed by the Service in 1983 which are used to help determine whether a particular species should be listed as threatened or endangered. The guidelines consider the magnitude and immediacy of threats and the species’ taxonomic importance. The Petitioner also noted that in response to a previous petition addressing the species (Biodiversity Legal Foundation and Sharps 1994), the Service concluded that while the species was not in immediate risk of extinction, the ecosystem which this species creates is imperiled or will be in the near future (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1995). The Petitioner asserted that management actions recommended in this response have not been initiated. The Petitioner believes that the Service’s consideration of "backlash from angry ranchers and landowners" was beyond the scope of the listing criteria. The Petitioner discussed other wide-spread species which have merited listing, including the bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) and bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

! Emergency listing.

The Petitioner expressed concern that continuing human activities could pose a threat to the black-tailed prairie dog and that additional threats might be anticipated following the filing of its petition. The Petitioner predicted that poisoning and shooting would increase and result in significant population declines for the species during the normal rulemaking process. The Petitioner noted that under 16 U.S.C. 1533(b)(7) the Secretary of the Department of the Interior has the authority to suspend normal rulemaking procedures for a species, and to issue emergency regulations for it, when there is a significant risk to its well-being and where the routine listing process is not adequate to prevent losses that may result in extinction.

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.5 SUMMARY OF COMMENTS OF THE BIODIVERSITY LEGAL FOUNDATION, THE PREDATOR PROJECT, AND JON C. SHARPS

As noted previously, the Service has considered the Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) petition as supplemental information to the National Wildlife Federation petition. The Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) addressed several subjects including background information, management history, ecosystem considerations, and criteria for listing. These subjects are summarized as follows:

! Background information.

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) provided estimates of historic and current distribution of the black-tailed prairie dog, both regionally and by State. They also discussed the population dynamics of the species. They noted that the species breeds and produces one litter yearly and has an average life expectancy of 2-3 years for males and 3-4 years for females. They noted that the species’ populations are impacted by eradication programs, sylvatic plague, recreational shooting, land conversion, and natural predation.

! Management history.

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) presented the history of black-tailed prairie dog management for each State and provided estimates of the historic and current number of acres of occupied habitat. This information also was available from the National Wildlife Federation petition and from other sources, much of which is included hereinafter under the Listing Factors Discussion.

! Ecosystem considerations.

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) discussed the threat to prairie ecosystems, particularly from agricultural land conversion. They noted the ecological importance of the black-tailed prairie dog as a keystone species.

! Criteria for listing.

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. (1998) addressed each of the five criteria for listing evaluations noted in the Act. All of these criteria were considered by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation to be relevant to the current status of the black-tailed prairie dog.

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.6 SUMMARY OF STATE AGENCY COMMENTS

Prior to the 90-day finding for the National Wildlife Federation petition, the Service received related written comments from all State wildlife agencies within the historic range of the black-tailed prairie dog, with the exception of North Dakota. Two State agriculture departments (New Mexico and Wyoming) and two State legislatures (North Dakota and Wyoming) provided comments. In general, the States opposed listing the black-tailed prairie dog, but supported the development of conservation measures for the species. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks noted that the species should not be listed as threatened or endangered, but "may merit candidate species status" (Williams, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, in litt. 1998).

Subsequent to the 90-day finding, several State agencies provided additional comments. The Arizona Game and Fish Department provided comments acknowledging population declines for the species, but stated that it believed insufficient information had been presented to warrant listing of the species (Shroufe, Arizona Game and Fish Department, in litt. 1999). The State of Colorado (Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, and Colorado Attorney General) provided additional comments opposing listing and regarding the quality of the available data (Walcher et al., State of Colorado, in litt. 1999). The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks provided information regarding the State’s prairie dog conservation plan (Graham, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, in litt. 1999). The New Mexico Department of Agriculture provided additional comments opposing listing and suggested that the States were the appropriate entity to address species issues (DuBois, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, in litt. 1999). The North Dakota Game and Fish Department provided comments opposing listing (McKenna, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, in litt. 1999). The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation provided information on black-tailed prairie dogs in Oklahoma (Duffy, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, in litt. 1999). The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks provided comments supporting efforts currently underway to establish a cooperative conservation strategy for the species (Cooper, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks, in litt. 1999). The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reiterated points made in an earlier comment letter and emphasized that the States are best suited for managing the species (Sansom, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in litt. 1999). The Wyoming State Geological Survey (Cook, Wyoming State Geological Survey, in litt. 1999), Game and Fish Department (Wichers, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, in litt. 1999), Department of Agriculture (Micheli, Wyoming Department of Agriculture, in litt. 1999), and Office of the Governor (Geringer, State of Wyoming, in litt. 1999) provided comments suggesting that the development of conservation strategies involving State and local governments and private citizens was preferable to listing. Additional information regarding distribution and abundance was provided by New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming; and information regarding disease was provided by Arizona. Most comments provided by the States focused on policy and jurisdictional concerns rather than information related to the biological status of the species.

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.7 SUMMARY OF TRIBAL COMMENTS

Prior to the 90-day finding, the Service received written comments regarding the petition from three Tribes in South Dakota—the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Generally their views were as follows, additional specific comments are addressed hereinafter. Information was provided by these Tribes regarding distribution and abundance and existing regulatory mechanisms. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe believes that it is adequately managing the black-tailed prairie dog and that it should be excluded from any listing (Bourland and Dupris, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, in litt. 1998). The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe (Miller, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, in litt. 1998) and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Finnegan et al., Rosebud Sioux Tribe, in litt. 1998) opposed listing of the black-tailed prairie dog. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe provided additional comments supporting their views subsequent to the 90-day finding (Dikeman et al., Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, in litt. 1999).

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.8 SUMMARY OF FEDERAL AGENCY COMMENTS

Prior to the 90-day finding, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provided comments on the petition (Deerinwater, Bureau of Indian Affairs, in litt. 1998 and Jenison, Bureau of Indian Affairs, in litt. 1998). The BIA supported conservation measures and acknowledged a possible need to list the species.

Subsequent to the 90-day finding, the Forest Service provided supplemental information regarding the current status of black-tailed prairie dogs on National Grasslands (Sidle, U.S. Forest Service, in litt. 1999). The National Park Service (NPS) also provided comments subsequent to the 90-day finding (Soukup, National Park Service, in litt. 1999). The NPS noted restoration efforts being undertaken at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and also provided information on its control efforts. The NPS noted its preference for the development and implementation of cooperative management strategies among State, tribal, and Federal Agencies rather than a listing of the species. The Corps of Engineers Omaha District also reviewed information provided in the petition, but had no specific comments (Thomas, Corps of Engineers, in litt. 1999).

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.9 SUMMARY OF COUNTY AGENCY COMMENTS

Twenty-three county agencies (county commissions and weed/pest councils) in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming, provided comments on the petition. Seven comment letters were received prior to the 90-day finding and 16 letters subsequent to the 90-day finding. All of these agencies were opposed to listing the species. Economic considerations were a common concern, although the Act directs that only biological considerations are to be addressed in the listing process.

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.10 SUMMARY OF ORGANIZATION COMMENTS

One hundred forty-four organizations, largely either wildlife/conservation organizations or livestock/land management organizations, submitted comments to the Service. Thirty-seven comment letters were received prior to the 90-day finding and 107 letters were received subsequent to the 90-day finding. Forty-two wildlife/conservation groups supported listing of the black-tailed prairie dogs. Eighty-seven livestock/land management organizations were opposed to listing the species. Fifteen organizations provided recommendations, but did not indicate a position.

The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Foundation (BFF Recovery Foundation) (1998 and 1999) provided additional supplemental information via several letters both prior to and after the 90-day finding. This information included data regarding the activities of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) as related to control of black-tailed prairie dogs, data from a phone survey of county weed and pest control officials and extension agents, data regarding impacts to the species from recreational shooting, information regarding the distribution and abundance of the species across its range, data regarding reduction in black-tailed prairie dog occupied habitat on National Grasslands managed by the Forest Service, data regarding habitat availability, data regarding species distribution in Montana, and information regarding sylvatic plague distribution.

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

1.11 SUMMARY OF INDIVIDUAL COMMENTS

Public awareness regarding the black-tailed prairie dog appears to have increased in the past 4-5 years. Only 266 comment letters were received from individuals during the review period for the 1994 petition to classify the black-tailed prairie dog as a Category 2 Candidate species (Biodiversity Legal Foundation and Sharps 1994). However, approximately 14,300 comment letters were received from individuals during the development of this finding. Approximately 90 percent of these comments supported listing the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened. The issues most frequently noted in these letters were impacts from the loss of 99 percent of the species’ habitat, recreational shooting, control, habitat destruction, and disease. Individuals opposed to listing the species most frequently expressed the view that sport shooting does not impact the species, that adequate numbers of black-tailed prairie dogs are present, that the species multiplies rapidly in response to adverse impacts, and that adverse economic impacts can occur. The Service is required to make a decision regarding the petition based on the best scientific and commercial information available; it does not consider public opinion.

Several comments from individuals noted increasing or decreasing populations of black-tailed prairie dogs in various areas of the country. Generally, these observations were not useful because they were anecdotal and without adequate quantification. It was not possible to evaluate these fragmented reports in any context reflecting population trends for the species. Accordingly, the Service relied on more comprehensive reports from the literature and from various agencies for a more comprehensive evaluation.

The Service addresses the pertinent scientific and commercial information in these comments as they relate to the biological status of the species in later portions of this document.

Many of the letters from individuals noted concerns not applicable to any of the listing factors considered by the Service during a status review. These concerns included—significance of black-tailed prairie dogs as a keystone species, impacts to individuals possessing black-tailed prairie dogs as pets, animal rights issues, adverse economic impacts related to black-tailed prairie dogs, disease impacts on humans, increased soil erosion on prairie dog towns, livestock injuries related to stepping in prairie dog holes, and other issues. While the Service recognizes that these may be important concerns for some individuals, this finding addresses only the biological aspects of whether or not listing of this species is warranted.

Some individual concerns that are not applicable or only indirectly applicable to the listing factors have been addressed by other parties. Several authors have concluded that the black-tailed prairie dog is a keystone species (Agnew et al. 1986, Barko 1997, Clark et al. 1982, Forrest et al. 1988, Kotliar et al. 1999, Miller et al. 1996, Reading et al. 1989, Sager 1996), although Stapp (1998) questioned this conclusion. The Service recognizes the importance of the black-tailed prairie dog as a keystone species; however, this factor is not directly pertinent to the listing process. Impacts to individuals having black-tailed prairie dogs as pets and issues related to animal rights also are not pertinent to the listing process.

Several authors have concluded that although some degree of grazing competition may exist between livestock and prairie dogs, that competition is offset by increased nutrient content of clipped forage (Barko 1997, Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Coppock et al. 1983, Detling 1998, Detling and Whicker 1987, Uresk and Bjugstad 1980, Whicker and Detling 1988, Whicker and Detling 1993). Other authors have noted that control is generally not economically justified (Collins et al. 1984, Klatt and Hein 1978, O’Melia 1980, O’Melia et al. 1982, Sharps and Uresk 1990, Uresk 1985, Uresk et al. 1981). Regarding sylvatic plague, Barnes (1993) stated that from the perspective of human morbidity and mortality, prairie dogs are unimportant, since fewer than 3 percent of the infections of humans with plague in the United States are acquired from prairie dogs or their fleas. Research pertaining to the effects of prairie dogs on soil that was reviewed by the Service either made no mention of increased soil erosion on prairie dog towns (Carlson and White 1987, Carlson and White 1988, White and Carlson 1984), or concluded that erosion was primarily due to other factors (Koford 1958). Koford (1958) concluded that "prairie dogs rarely cause harmful erosion except where livestock, cultivation or other land use has greatly altered the natural vegetation." Several comments from individuals mentioned concerns regarding broken legs of livestock and horses; however, little documentation was available regarding this issue.

The Service recognizes that these reports are not inclusive of all situations that may occur and that site and time specific conditions may result in different observations. For example, numerous letters from landowners reported range deterioration and forage competition with livestock where prairie dogs occur. These reports may differ from others in part due to the smaller scale perspective of specific locations where prairie dog colonies have remained in one place for long periods, where drought and overgrazing may have exacerbated impacts by prairie dogs, and where economic concerns override wildlife considerations.

1.12 SUMMARY OF CONSERVATION PLANS

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation (1999) developed and submitted a plan for black-tailed prairie dog conservation. Their recommendations for conservation included the following measures:

! Issue immediate directions and guidelines to manage and protect the species as if it were already listed and protected under the Act.

! Prohibit poisoning of the species on all sections of public lands that are required for the recovery of the species.

! Prohibit shooting of prairie dogs on all public lands.

! Prohibit significant destruction and adverse modification of the species’ habitat on all public lands.

! Reclassify the species from its status as a pest or small game animal to a protected nongame species.

! Implement a scientifically sound, peer reviewed species recovery program on public land.

! Encourage species recovery on private land, particularly through positive incentive voluntary programs.

! Implement current laws in order to maximize protection for the species.

! Educate the public about the need to conserve the species.

State wildlife agencies and other interested parties have developed a Strategy that may lead to a Conservation Agreement for the black-tailed prairie dog (Van Pelt in prep.). The Service supports these efforts. At this stage of development the plan is primarily a conservation assessment and strategy. State participation in and funding for the conservation plan is voluntary. Service policy recommends that a conservation agreement should identify parties responsible for initiating various actions with commitments for sufficient staffing and funds (Policy for Candidate Conservation Agreements, 64 FR 32726). Although the current draft plan remains tentative at this time and does not commit to specific actions that would improve status for the species, implementation of specific actions could have an impact on the status of the species in the future. A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed by 8 of the 11 participating State wildlife agencies for the purpose of implementing the conservation assessment and strategy for the black-tailed prairie dog. At this time it does not include participation by the States of New Mexico, North Dakota, or Colorado, other State (non-wildlife) agencies, Federal Agencies, tribal agencies, or any private interests. We recognize the significant effort that went into the development of this Strategy, and believe that this is a good beginning to addressing the conservation needs of the black-tailed prairie dog. However, the lack of commitments to specific immediate actions to improve the status of the species makes it difficult to assess any long-term benefits that the Stategy may offer the species. While the coordinated efforts of the States are a positive sign, we can only consider the current status of, and threats to, the species in making our listing decision.

Major proposals in the States’ Strategy include the following measures:

! Implement a conservation strategy.

! Establish a black-tailed prairie dog conservation team and State working groups.

! Determine species distribution and status.

! Cooperate with Mexico and Canada.

! Identify, maintain, and promote existing and other suitable habitat.

! Provide public education.

! Identify research needs.

! Review State regulations.

! Complete annual evaluations.

1.13   SUMMARY OF COMMENTS ON THE STATES’ DRAFT CONSERVATION ASSESSMENT AND STRATEGY

Several State wildlife agencies requested that the Service reopen the comment period related to the 90-day finding for the black-tailed prairie dog for the purpose of receiving comments pertaining to their related Strategy (Shroufe, Arizona Game and Fish Department, in litt. 1999). They requested that the Strategy and related comments be considered before the Service made a listing decision for the species. During this third comment period (October 4 to November 3, 1999) approximately 9,000 letters were received. However, only 84 letters mentioned the States’ Strategy and only a few provided specific comments other than a position for or against this initiative.

Twenty-five letters opposed the States’ Strategy. The most common views expressed within this group were that proposed measures were inadequate to avoid listing, proposed actions were only voluntary, timeframes were too lengthy, and funding was not guaranteed. Specifically, the National Wildlife Federation (Johnson and Graber in litt. 1999) stated that the Service cannot legally rely on future, voluntary State management actions under the draft Strategy as a basis for not listing the species. Additionally, the National Wildlife Federation questioned the States’ reliance on participation by Native American Tribes in the Strategy. The National Wildlife Federation also asserted that effective conservation results cannot be attained absent fundamental changes in State statutory and regulatory provisions governing prairie dogs. The Predator Conservation Alliance (Proctor in litt. 1999) believes that the States continue to show a lack of sincerity and ability to adequately restore and maintain black-tailed prairie dog communities. Additionally, the Predator Conservation Alliance believes that the multi-State plan lacks specifics that could potentially affect a listing decision. It asserts that discussion of pertinent issues does not necessarily equate to their resolution. The Predator Conservation Alliance also asserts that the multi-State plan does not address several issues beyond the control of State agencies.

Fifty-six letters supported the States’ Strategy. The most common views expressed were that proposed measures were sufficient to avoid listing and that State management was preferable to Federal management. Shroufe (Arizona Game and Fish Department, in litt. 1999) provided the Service with a Memorandum of Understanding signed by 8 of 11 Directors from State Fish and Wildlife agencies within the range of the black-tailed prairie dog. This Memorandum of Understanding supports the Strategy and while it has many laudable goals, we cannot identify any implemented conservation improvements for the black-tailed prairie dog at this time. The Strategy, Memorandum of Understanding, and attendant correspondence discuss the identification of concerned staff, the formation of workgroups, review of regulations (and some very limited changes), preliminary reintroduction efforts, and some temporary closures by Federal agencies. These may be important steps in conservation efforts for the species, but in themselves they do not result in an improved status for the species at this time.

Three letters that mention the States’ Strategy did not express a position.