Utah seeks to delist ‘threatened’ prairie dog species, assumes management of creature

In this undated file photo released by Forest Guardians, a prairie dog eats in southwestern Utah. The species has been federally protected since the 1970s, and Utah wildlife managers are now taking the steps to assume control of the species in the future. (Associated Press)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah prairie dog — a species only found in southwest Utah — used to roam all over southwest Utah.

It’s a rodent similar to squirrels, chipmunks and marmots that can reach a few pounds in weight. The nonprofit conservation group NatureServe notes that there were 95,000 prairie dogs recorded in the 1920s. That number fell to only a few thousand as the development of the region, drought and other factors have altered its habitat.

Kimberly Hersey, the mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, points out that the species first received federal protection through the Endangered Species Act in 1973 as its small population continued to shrink and plans had been put in place to poison the remaining animals .

“The mandate was to prevent extinction and recover the species,” she said, noting that there were only a few exceptions that allowed Utahns to kill a Utah prairie dog.

The species has been on the rebound ever since. The US Fish and Wildlife Service downlisted it to “threatened” in 1984, where it remains to this day. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists count Utah prairie dogs every spring, finding, on average, 5,760 individuals — 2½ times the population in 1971.

However, Hersey explains that since a summer peak population is often seven times higher than the spring count estimate, the Utah prairie dog’s population is closer to 40,000 overall as its recovery continues.

This recovery is why Utah wildlife managers are now ready to ask the federal government to delist the species, which would move management of the species over to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The division unveiled a proposed plan Tuesday that would replace the current federal regulations should the Utah prairie dog be removed from the endangered species list.

The document states that Utah would continue to monitor Utah prairie dog populations and work to kill plague-carrying fleas inside burrows. It would also require surveys before any new development in the region, while also “translocating prairie dogs from those development areas to public lands with suitable habitat.” Other work calls for removing predators from “areas with small, vulnerable colonies.”

The division is also seeking to modify the process that allows residents to remove or kill any animals that are considered a nuisance, meaning that there would still be a process to legally kill a prairie dog in some cases and illegal killings would be subject to state poaching laws. Residents would not need a permit if the animal is in their home or on their property, but there would be a system in place to regulate agricultural permits.

“The plan will continue to manage the population through ongoing monitoring, while also helping to address concerns and conflicts with private landowners due to possible damage,” Hersey said, in a statement Tuesday. “We are proposing to make a few changes to the current rule regarding the taking of prairie dogs in situations where there are conflicts, while still maintaining a healthy population and ongoing conservation efforts.”

In a video explaining the proposal, she also acknowledged that the switch from federal to state control likely won’t happen overnight. The changes may happen in the next few years, though.

A Utah prairie dog sits in a cage before being outfitted with a GPS collar by biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City on Wednesday, Aug.  29, 2018. The species is found in southwest Utah, while two other similar species can be found in eastern Utah.
A Utah prairie dog sits in a cage before being outfitted with a GPS collar by biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. The species is found in southwest Utah, while two other similar species can be found in eastern Utah. (Photo: Marc Weaver, KSL-TV)

Utah prairie dog management will likely require some sort of strategy because of the time the species has spent on the endangered species list, and the potential repercussions if the species is not protected in any way. Hersey points out that there are “continued issues” regarding agricultural damage, diseases that the species can carry that cause human health concerns and restrictions that have delayed development projects in the region.

These all factored in attempts to limit the protections in the past. For instance, the US Fish and Wildlife Service loosened some of its Utah prairie dog regulations in 2018, which led to a lawsuit from the group Friends of Animals.

Hersey said there would be tools put in place to “encourage” the coexistence between humans and prairie dogs, such as habitat treatment projects.

The human-prairie dog interactions are also why there’s been a growing attempt to move the species to federally protected land — like national parks — over the years, as a way to continue growing the Utah prairie dog’s population while minimizing human impacts. Nearly half of the estimated Utah prairie dog population is now on either public or protected land, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources statistics.

Biologists have also sought to create more prairie dog colonies in high-elevation places in recent years because there is often more water and moisture-rich soil in the mountains than in the lower-elevation valleys. This is something that happened while drought conditions continue to affect southwest Utah, Hersey said.

The division’s proposal will go through a public comment period before the Utah Wildlife Board votes to approve the plan. The board is scheduled to vote on the issue during its meeting on Jan. 3, 2023. Those for or against the idea can provide their comments on the plan through the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website until 11:59 pm on Dec. 20.

If approved, the plan still won’t go into effect until the federal government delists the species from Endangered Species Act projections. Since it’s unclear when that could happen, there’s no real timetable for Utah’s management plan to begin.

Hersey explained there are a few additional steps needed once a plan is approved. The division will seek a memorandum of agreement with various groups, including local counties and federal agencies, before there’s a formal request with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to review the current status of the Utah prairie dog. The federal agency will ultimately decide whether to keep existing protections or delist the species.

“We know this … likely will take several years (to happen),” she said. “In the meantime, we will continue to have conservation actions for the species — and hopefully will continue to see success.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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