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Texas Group Commits To Conserve Prairie Dog
AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas working group committee of ranching and farming organizations, environmental groups, state and federal biologists, private landowners and others has said it will continue efforts to conserve and manage the black-tailed prairie dog, even though the federal government has announced it will no longer consider listing the animal as a threatened species.
A spokesperson for Texas Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Working Group said the group will continue working toward its proposed goal to have 293,129 acres of occupied prairie dog habitat in Texas by 2011. This represents one percent of the original available habitat in Texas as estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced Aug. 12 that it was "de-listing" the prairie dog by removing it from the candidate list of species being considered for threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.
"We think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the logical conclusion here," said Roger Haldenby of Plains Cotton Growers in Lubbock, a spokesperson for the Texas working group. "There are more acres of occupied prairie dog habitat and prairie dogs are less vulnerable to disease and other factors than was originally thought. Nonetheless, we have done a lot of work to produce a Texas plan to conserve and manage the species, and we are going to continue that work and implement the plan."
Federal biologists echoed these sentiments, confirming that the contributions of Texas and the 10 other states that have been working for years to verify the species’ status played a major role in the de-listing decision.
"Early on, we were looking mainly at large colonies that were devastated by plague, and we assumed that smaller, more isolated colonies would also be at serious risk to plague," said Pete Gober, the USFWS wildlife biologist in South Dakota who has been coordinating the sharing of information about nationwide black tailed prairie dog conservation. "But we found out otherwise once we got better occupied habitat numbers from states like Texas. When you consider things range-wide across all the states, plague turned out to not be catastrophic in its effects on prairie dog populations."
Preliminary estimates indicate there is currently 150,000 to 170,000 acres of occupied prairie dog habitat in Texas, with a final inventory now nearing completion. This acreage figure is based on aerial photo interpretation and subsequent ground truthing from county roads. The figure represents more than twice the occupied prairie dog habitat than was originally thought to exist in Texas, which was around 68,000 acres based on a 1991 study.
Work to develop the Texas Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation and Management Plan began in 1999 following petitions by environmental groups for the USFWS to list the species as threatened. The Texas working group is part of a multi-state effort to restore the prairie dog.
The Texas plan has six goals: (1) Determine the current population size of black-tailed prairie dogs in Texas and establish a long-term monitoring program, (2) Develop and implement an effective education and outreach program, (3) Develop management options and guidelines that conserve prairie dogs at long-term sustainable levels, (4) Review and make recommendations for regulatory changes in the status of black-tailed prairie dogs, (5) Identify research needs and establish a research program that facilitates long-term viability of black-tailed prairie dogs in Texas, and (6) Implement the plan.
The management plan does not restrict landowners from controlling prairie dogs, but it does offer incentives to restore prairie dogs and the grasslands upon which they and other species rely. The plan lists various government and nonprofit programs that offer financial grants, free land management advice and other technical assistance.
The 25-member working group represents diverse stakeholders, from environmental groups like the Texas Panhandle Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy to agriculture interests like the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau. The complete member list is in the Texas plan on the working group Web site (http://www.texasprairiedog.org/).
Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are important for healthy grassland ecosystems. Their burrows and surrounding low-cut vegetation provide habitat for a variety of other species, including western burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and the endangered black-footed ferret (currently extinct in Texas). Basic prairie dog biology and life history is on the TPWD Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/mammals/prairie.htm).
Prairie dogs are currently a nongame species in Texas, with no closed hunting season or daily bag limit restrictions, although a valid hunting license is required.
Anyone can see the Texas Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation and Management Plan on the working group Web site (http://www.texasprairiedog.org). Comments about the plan or questions about prairie dogs in Texas should go to Heather Whitlaw at email@example.com or (806) 742-6888, ext 242.
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