Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Prairie Dog: Going Extinct?

From the Odessa American
January 4, 2010 2:03 PM

A federal agency says no, but a college professor says yes.

The topic: prairie dogs are on the brink of extinction.

Whether you think they’re fun to hunt, make a great local football mascot or are just plain cute is a matter of perspective.

Getting the critters listed as an endangered species list also brings up several viewpoints.

In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a study indicating that the black-tailed prairie dog, the kind seen scurrying around parts of Odessa, doesn’t warrant protection as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Joy Gober looked at historical information in the study.

And history speaks for itself.

Since 1961, the study shows, black-tailed prairie dog habitats have increased.

In Texas, however, the grassland space is deteriorating; thus shrinking prairie dog colonies and restricting their expansions.

"They’re a colonial species," said Diane Post, an associate professor of science and mathematics at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. "They live in social groups."
But there may just be an exception in the Permian Basin.
Given the large presence of prairie dogs on the UTPB campus and in Odessa’s Sherwood Park, Phillip Dickerson, a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife in Midland, said prairie dogs are "hangin’ in there."

(UTPB even hired a "prairie dog whisperer" once to relocate about 150 of the rodents. - DK)
Found in the wild east of the Continental Divide, the black-tailed prairie dog is abundantly present with colonies as far north as the Canadian border and as far south as West Texas stretching west to Arizona.

Long ago, prairie grasslands covered a large portion of the American west, but now that land is scarce.

"There aren’t many prairie dogs left," Post said. "Without (prairie grassland) they can’t live."

For now, Dickerson said, there’s nothing to worry about.

"There’s no immediate risk," he said. "(But) long term, it’s hard to tell."

Despite being kept off the endangered list, Gober admits prairie dogs have "declined dramatically on a historical level," and said the black-tailed prairie dog has "broader range than any other (prairie dog) species."

But the main concern in all of this isn’t just the prairie dog. It’s the other animals that count on the prairie dog for survival.

"They’re what’s called a keystone species," Post said.

Other animals like ferrets and the burrowing owl depend on prairie dog burrows to live and hibernate. Certain insects such as grasshoppers and several types of plant life rely on prairie dogs for a life cycle.

"They engineer that ecosystem," Post said.

With the numbers showing a decline, Gober said all states housing wild prairie dogs should be "concerned." But it’s not just because of environment that’s declining the prairie dog population; hunters and a plague are reason for concern as well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study shows a plague has made its way from colony to colony and cut into prairie dog populations.

Recreational shooting can help reduce population densities, the study said, but in Texas and most of the other states where prairie dogs live, the animals are considered varmints. Basically it means they can legally be shot, trapped or killed if found to be a nuisance.

"Those things have to change," Post said.

And she does have a solution that will allow prairie dog colonies to grow in the area.

"Acquire land and let them be," Post said.

(Odessa images from Flickr and Panoramio.)


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