Endangered Species
Mountain-Prairie Region

UTAH PRAIRIE DOG

Utah Prairie Dog Feeding
Photo used with permission of Laura Romin

Species Description: Prairie dogs occur only in North America. They are rodents within the squirrel family and include five species--the Utah prairie dog, the white-tailed prairie dog, the black-tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison prairie dog, and the Mexican prairie dog. The Utah prairie dog is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. The total length of an adult Utah prairie dog is approximately 12-14 inches, the weight of an individual ranges from 1 to 3 pounds. Utah prairie dogs range in color from cinnamon to clay, with dark markings above the eyes and white on the tip of the tail. Utah prairie dogs are diurnal, burrowing animals. Breeding usually takes place in March and young are born in April after a 30 day gestation period. Emergence of the pups usually occurs from mid to late May. The Utah prairie dog's diet is composed of flowers, seeds, grasses, leaves, and even insects.

Distribution, Abundance, & Trends: The Utah prairie dog is the westernmost species of prairie dog. The species’ range is limited to the southwestern quarter of Utah. Historically, Utah prairie dog colonies were found as far west as Pine and Buckskin Valleys in Beaver and Iron Counties, and may have occurred as far north as Nephi, southeast to Bryce Canyon National Park, east to the foothills of the Aquarius Plateau, and south to the northern borders of Kane and Washington Counties. The Utah prairie dog currently occurs in three areas within southwestern Utah including Awapa Plateau, Paunsaugunt, and West Desert (Map). Utah prairie dogs are found in elevations from 5,400-feet on valley floors up to 9,500-feet in mountain habitats. 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. The exact magnitude of this decline is not known. However, by the early 1970s, the Utah prairie dog had been eliminated from major portions of its historical range and had declined to an estimated 3,300 individuals distributed among 37 Utah prairie dog colonies. From 1985 through 2009, the total estimated range-wide population (including juveniles) ranged from 23,752 to 54,195 animals, with an average population of 34,279. Trends are stable to increasing.  Recent population estimates are among the highest recorded since listing.  Specifically, five of the seven highest population counts have occurred since 2005. 

Status: The Utah prairie dog was listed as an endangered species on June 4, 1973 (38 FR 14678), pursuant to the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969.  The species’ was downlisted to threatened in 1984 (49FR 22330).  The Utah prairie dog’s rangewide population has been stable to increasing over the last 30 years.   However, threats remain across the range of the Utah prairie dog including plague, urban expansion, over-grazing, cultivated agriculture, vegetation community changes, invasive plants, OHV and recreational uses, climate change, energy resource exploration and development, fire management, poaching, and predation.  These issues can be reduced to two overriding concerns:  permanent habitat loss and fragmentation (i.e. largely from commercial and residential development), and plague. 

The recovery priority number for the Utah prairie dog is 8C (see Table 1).  Recovery priority numbers, which range from a high of 1C to a low of 18, are based on degree of threat, recovery potential, taxonomic distinctiveness, and presence of an actual or imminent conflict between the species and development activities (C represents conflict).  The rank of 8C is based on a moderate degree of threat (e.g., economic development activities and plague), a high degree of controversy regarding the species and its recovery, high recovery potential, and taxonomic standing as a species.

As previously mentioned, By May 1984, Utah prairie dog populations had expanded in portions of their range, and we reclassified the species to threatened status with a special rule to allow regulated take of Utah prairie dogs (49 FR 22330).  Under the 1984 special rule, taking of up to 5,000 animals was authorized in the seasonal window of June 1 through December 31.  This special rule was amended on June 14, 1991 (56 FR 27438), to increase the amount of regulated take throughout the species’ range to 6,000 animals.  In practice, take of Utah prairie dogs in association with the 1984 and 1991 special rules is only permitted in cases where Utah prairie dogs are causing damage to irrigated agriculture or pasture lands, as implemented by the UDWR permitting process under authority of UDWR Rule R657-19 Taking Nongame Mammals.  We are in the process of revising the 1991 special rule to limit take to agricultural lands, properties adjacent to conservation lands, and areas where prairie dogs create human safety hazards or disturb the sanctity of significant human cultural or human burial sites (see Recovery Actions, below).

Recovery Efforts: A recovery plan for the Utah prairie dog was finalized in 1991.  The plan’s primary recovery criterion was to establish Utah prairie dog populations on public lands across three recovery areas: West Desert, Paunsaugunt, and Awapa Plateau.  In 1972, the UDWR initiated a translocation program to move Utah prairie dogs from private agricultural lands to areas of historical occupancy on public lands.  Translocations continued as a primary recovery action in the 1991 recover y plan.  Despite these efforts to establish new Utah prairie dog colonies on federal lands, over 70 percent of the Utah prairie dog population still occurs on private lands. 

We completed a Final Revised Recovery Plan for the species in 2012, our first revision of the 1991 recovery plan.  Our recovery strategy for the Utah prairie dog focuses our attention on habitat loss and fragmentation and disease through a program that encompasses threats abatement, habitat protection, research, and monitoring.  Increasing and securing populations of the Utah prairie dog on public land is still an important component of the revised recovery plan.  However, the revised recovery plan also emphasizes conservation of the species on non-federal lands through programs with willing landowners, such as safe harbor agreements, conservation easements, and conservation banks.  Recovery of the species will be achieved more rapidly if we increase conservation of the species on these lands in a way that simultaneously benefits private landowners and Utah prairie dogs.
 
The revised recovery plan also emphasizes research and management of plague in Utah prairie dog colonies.  Plague is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) not native to North America.  Fleas are the most common vectors.  Plague occurs across the entire range of the Utah prairie dog and has the potential to result in complete loss or severe reduction in prairie dog colonies across the landscape.  Management measures to control plague outbreaks (i.e., vaccines, insecticides) are being studied and their success may influence long term Utah prairie dog conservation on both federal and non-federal lands. 

Overall, the revised recovery plan emphasizes: conserving extant colonies, many of which occur on non-Federal lands; establishing additional colonies on Federal and non-Federal lands via habitat improvement or translocations; controlling the transmission of plague; and monitoring habitat conditions.  Examples of proposed recovery actions include continuing Utah prairie dog annual surveys and population monitoring; conserving prairie dog habitat on non-federal lands by purchasing conservation easements and establishing voluntary conservation agreements (e.g., safe harbor agreements) with willing landowners; protecting and improving habitat on federal lands by implementing vegetation treatments and minimizing impacts of proposed land use activities; minimizing impacts of disease such as plague; continuing the translocation of Utah prairie dogs to establish new colonies in suitable habitats; and developing a more comprehensive public outreach effort to promote a better understanding of the biological and habitat values of the Utah prairie dog.

We believe the Utah prairie dog is a very recoverable species.  We will need a lot of assistance from partners to implement recovery actions in a manner that leads the species’ to recovery goals.  In this regard, the Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Implementation Program (UPDRIP or “Program”) is a public private partnership to coordinate the recovery of the Utah prairie dog while balancing and accommodating land uses and needs of the human population throughout the species range.  The UPDRIP partnership includes representatives from the USFWS, Utah Department of Natural Resources (UDNR), USFS, BLM, Natural Resources Conservation Service, NPS, UDWR, School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), Iron County, Garfield County, Wayne County, Piute County, Utah Farm Bureau, Panoramaland Resource Conservation and Development Council, Color Country Resource Conservation and Development Council, local municipalities, and environmental interests.

The UPDRIP was formalized in 2010, and the partnership is still in its early stages.  There is currently limited funding available to pursue landscape-level conservation efforts for recovery of the species.  However, the Program has already become a valuable tool for increasing coordination efforts and is making initial strides to formulate annual and long-range work plans for Utah prairie dog conservation.  In addition, the support of UPDRIP partners has already proven important in obtaining some funding from various grant programs.  Supporting and building the UPDRIP partnership into the future is essential if we are to recover the Utah prairie dog.  More information on the Program and current updates on its efforts can be found at the UPDRIP website.

Recent Actions: GARFIELD COUNTY HCP The Service received a permit application from the Garfield County Commission (Utah) and are announcing the availability of a Draft Low-effect Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Utah prairie dog in Garfield County, Utah, for a 30 day public comment period. The low-effect habitat conservation plan (HCP) would authorize incidental take of the federally threatened Utah prairie dog from translocations and residential, commercial, and industrial developments from the vicinity of the town of Panguitch, Utah. The HCP and our associated permit would authorize the take of prairie dogs and habitat on no more than 220 acres of habitat over a maximum 3-year period. Most of the take is limited to already developed areas or those areas projected for development in the near future. These areas do not serve to support current or future metapopulations and objectives for recovery of the species in the wild. Mitigation for the incidental take would include a combination of translocations of Utah prairie dogs to other sites or payment of a mitigation fee to a Utah prairie dog conservation fund. We request public comment on the draft low-effect HCP.

IRON COUNTY HCP On November 6, 2013, the Service issued a permit to the Iron County Commission (Utah) for their Final Low-effect Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Utah prairie dog in Iron County, Utah.  The low-effect habitat conservation plan (HCP) and associated permit authorizes incidental take of the federally threatened Utah prairie dog from residential, commercial, and industrial developments in Iron County, Utah.  The permit authorizes the take of no more than 600 acres of occupied Utah prairie dog habitat over a maximum 3-year period.   Most of the take is limited to already developed areas or those areas projected for development in the near future.  These areas do not serve to support current or future metapopulations and objectives for recovery of the species in the wild.  Mitigation for the incidental take would include a combination of translocations of Utah prairie dogs to other sites or payment of a mitigation fee to a Utah prairie dog conservation fund. 

The Service received a permit application from the Iron County Commission (Utah) and are announcing the availability of a Draft Low-effect Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Utah prairie dog in Iron County, Utah, for a 30 day public comment period. The low-effect HCP would authorize incidental take of the federally threatened Utah prairie dog from residential, commercial, and industrial developements in Iron County, Utah. The HCP and our associated permit would authorize the take of no more than 600 acres of occupied Utah prairie dog habitat over a maximum 3-year period. Most of the take is limited to already developed areas or those areas projected for development in the near future. These areas do not serve to support current or future metapopulations and objectives for recovery of the species in the wild. Mitigation for the incidental take would include a combination of translocations of Utah prairie dogs to other sites or payment of a mitigation fee to a Utah prairie dog conservation fund. We request public comment on the draft low-effect HCP.

On August 1, 2012, we notified the public of our final revisions to a 4(d) rule designating protective regulations necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the Utah prairie dog. We are revising our special regulations to provide limits to the allowable take, and we are issuing new incidental take exemptions for otherwise legal activities associated with standard agricultural practices. We are also including take exemptions for areas where Utah prairie dogs create serious human safety hazards or disturb the sanctity of significant human cultural or human burial sites. Most other established provisions of the existing special rule not relating to these amendments remain unchanged. The previous special rule which was established in 1984 and amended in 1991. This final 4(d) rule will support our overall recovery efforts by allowing management of prairie dogs on agricultural lands and gaining local community support by addressing issues where prairie dogs cause human safety hazards or disturb the sanctity of human cultural or burial sites.

On April 25, 2012, we released to the public the final revised Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Plan (this updates the previous 1991 recovery plan). 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. This revised plan also served as the basis for the species' 5-year review.

On April 25, 2012, we also reopened the comment period on our proposal to revise the species special 4(d) rule. A "special rule" specifies the protections deemed necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the species. The current 4(d) rule was established in 1991. On June 1, 2011, we proposed to revise this special rule (76 FR 31906). Today, we proposed a few additional changes 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.

On June 20, 2011, the Service completed a revised petition finding for the Utah prairie dog and determined that there was not substantial information to show that reclassifying the species from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted (76 FR 36053). 

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More information can be found on the Service's ECOS webpage

Last updated: November 6, 2013