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Facts About The Utah Prairie Dog

Updated on May 17, 2013

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A relative of the ground squirrel, there are only 5 species of prairie dog in the world, all of which are found in North America.
A relative of the ground squirrel, there are only 5 species of prairie dog in the world, all of which are found in North America.

The Utah Prairie Dog (Cynomys parvidens)

Status of Species: The Federal Government has the species listed as threatened.
Habitat: Southern Utah
Details: Only one of two species of prairie dogs that are protected under federal law. In the ‘70s the population was below 3300. Classified as endangered in 1973, the species was reclassified as threatened in 1984. These Prairie dogs live in colonies and have a matriarchal based “clan” system. Thought to be a brake off of the White-tailed Prairie Dogs because of their close genetic heritage. Prairie dogs are omnivorous and eat most vegetation, insects and have been known to be cannibalistic if one of their own is found dead above ground. They are effectively scavengers.

The Issue:

Since the settling of Southern Utah the prairie dog was branded a pest and has been hunted, poisoned and even had plague introduced into the populations in hope of eradicating them. The reason for this classifications is that live stock and draft animals would often break legs in prairie dog holes, plows would be ruined and crops eat by the little rodents. It does not help that prairie dogs are attracted to areas where there is clear and soft ground as in the case of a plowed field or a grazing field or range. Currently 80% of known prairie dog populations are on private lands.

Possible Solutions:

Safe harbor agreements and conservation banks have been set up with local ranchers were the ranchers agree to limit the amount of grazing in areas where the prairie dogs live in exchange for money. Most of this money comes from home owners buying into a conservation bank and so are exempt from punishment if prairie dogs are killed accidentally or while building etc. Additionally, BLM and other governmental groups have been attempting to relocate prairie dogs to protected areas and government land with limited success. Bryce Canyon National Park has a thriving colony thanks to these efforts but still, this is an exception rather than the general rule for the relocation efforts.

Recovering Population:

Of all the research I have done, only one website indicated that the population of Utah Prairie Dogs is recovering. All other sites focus on the fact that the species was on the verge of extinction in the ‘70s. The governmental website, on the other hand, clearly states that the species is not only stabilized but also growing. As of “2009, the total estimated range-wide population (including juveniles) ranged from 23,752 to 54,195 animals, with an average population of 34,279.” Additionally on June 20, 2011 a survey was completed that showed that there was no need to reclassify the species as endangered despite the urging of the environmental community to do so because of the evidence of steady population growth. Under the Endangered Species Act, the term “endangered species” means any species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The term “threatened species” means any species at risk of becoming an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

In simple terms: Endangered species are at risk of extinction now. Threatened species are likely to be at risk in the near future.

My opinion on the matter:

I find that while the desire to preserve the species is wise, there is a lot more than the fate of a prairie dog species going on here. From every indication the growth rate is showing that the species is stable and more. The real factor here is control of land. I know people who have prairie dogs on their land that moved in after those people moved there. One such person was at risk of federal prison and fines because his dog got loose and was chasing the prairie dogs around. Environmental activists hounded him and his family while he had to spend thousands of dollars attempting to pull permits to allow him to live in peace. BLM agents were on his property on a regular basis and at all hours.
While I am in favor of prevent another species from going extinct, I find that not all the information the environmental groups are providing is adding up. Considering that the official information shows a drastic recovery why have none of the environmental sites shown this information? Why is it that it is still a federal offense for even accidentally killing a prairie dog? As I mentioned before, there is more to this than just preserving the species. I feel this is a matter of controlling land and property rights.

How do you feel about the prairie dog issue?

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