Colorado Department of Natural Resources Completes Baseline Study of Black-Tailed Prairie Dog
Denver--The Colorado Department of Natural Resources recently completed a study to gather baseline information on the black-tailed prairie dog. After months of exhaustive field work and data collection and analysis, the final report concludes that while there are still threats to the species that need to be appropriately managed, the prairie dog is still quite abundant on the Eastern Plains of Colorado.
On February 4, 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published notice in the Federal Register that the status of the black-tailed prairie dog warranted its listing, but that higher priority species deserving of more immediate attention precluded the listing of the prairie dog at that time. The Service based this decision on the existence of several threats to the species and on information that assumed the black-tailed prairie dog occupied only slightly more than 90,000 acres in Eastern Colorado.
After more than six months of study, the Department has found that the prairie dog occupies, at a bare minimum, more than 214,000 acres east of the Continental Divide. This is more than double the amount of occupied acreage assumed by the USFWS in its 12-month administrative finding.
"This study confirms what the State has been saying all along," said Greg Walcher, Executive Director of the Department of Natural Resources. "We need to do a better job of managing black-tailed prairie dogs in this state, but they are not in danger of extinction and should not be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act."
The study began in March 2000 and was performed by EDAW, an environmental consulting firm in Fort Collins. EDAW began their work by contacting species experts around the state to help them locate all current data sources on the black-tailed prairie dog in Colorado. The objective was to assemble all of these sources of data into a single GIS database, that when field verified, could serve as baseline data for the species. The database was re-worked after intensive field surveys. The field surveys were crucial to ensure that the database reflected current locations and status of prairie dog towns and colonies that had not been observed in recent years. EDAW estimates that there are nearly 2,600 active prairie dog colonies in Eastern Colorado, the largest of which covers more than 4,100 acres.
The study also recommends several courses of action to pursue to avoid the need to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened or endangered species under federal law, including: additional field surveys and monitoring, additional biological research, some modification to hunting and control efforts, a landowner incentive program, and the establishment of prairie dog preserves.
"I think these recommendations are right on," said Walcher. "They will be implemented so that we can be sure we are headed in the right direction for the species, and for the people of this State."
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has already begun work on a state conservation and management plan for the black-tailed prairie dog. Recommendations from the EDAW report will be an integral part of its development and application. Following, are several components of the new management strategy currently under development.
- A working group has been established to set up a voluntary landowner incentives program to help farmers and ranchers recoup the costs they will incur by helping the state avoid further declines in the number of prairie dogs.
- A partnership is being formed between the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Transportation, and other agencies to acquire tracts of land on the Eastern Plains to set up grassland species preserves, where CPW will be able to manage several plains species of concern and do important biological research.
- Plans are being made to do more extensive aerial surveys to increase our knowledge about the distribution of the species. These efforts should be underway in early spring of 2001.
- The Colorado Wildlife Commission will consider regulations at their November meeting to restrict hunting of black-tailed prairie dogs.
"These actions demonstrate Colorado's commitment to proactive, voluntary species recovery efforts," said Walcher. We are implementing a model that I think other states will be excited to follow, and will want to join with us in our efforts to protect sensitive species without burdensome federal regulation."