It's 'Prairie Dog Day' in the West—State and Federal Conservation Report Cards Are Out
WildEarth Guardians released its fifth annual Report from the Burrow Feb. 2, finding that government agencies are generally doing a poor job of managing prairie dogs and their habitat. The report evaluates state and federal management of prairie dogs in 2011. While there were a few success stories to report, most federal agencies and states received middling to failing grades for their management of these species.
“Despite being essential to a healthy grassland ecosystem, prairie dogs are not getting the protection they deserve,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians.
The Report from the Burrow is annually released on “Prairie Dog Day"—Groundhog Day in the West. While famous Punxsutawney Phil entertains us, foretelling the length of winter, the status of our prairie dog populations has more serious implications for the future of western grassland ecosystems.
The report grades federal agencies and twelve states based on a number of criteria, including habitat conservation and planning, the existence of shooting regulations, whether they allow poisoning to control prairie dogs, and how vigorously they address plague in prairie dog colonies. Where possible, each state and federal agency had opportunity to review and offer input on the report.
Arizona and the National Park Service each earned a grade of “B” for their policies that promote prairie dog restoration, conservation and education. Unfortunately, every other agency and state scored middling to poorly on the report card. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the use of toxicants, received an “F” for approving Rozol for use as a prairie dog poison without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on possible impacts to other species. Three states also received failing grades for their mismanagement of prairie dogs—Nebraska and North and South Dakota.
“We give credit where credit is due,” said Jones. “But many federal agencies and states are failing prairie dogs, and we’re not afraid to say so. They must do better to conserve these critically important species.”
Scientists consider prairie dogs keystone species. Like the keystone that supports an archway, prairie dogs support whole ecosystems. Prairie dogs fertilize and aerate the soil, reduce noxious weeds, and clip the top parts of forage, creating a shorter but more nutrient-rich blade of grass. Large herbivores including elk and bison often prefer to graze on prairie dog towns. Prairie dog burrows provide habitat for numerous reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Prairie dogs are an important food source for a wide variety of species including hawks, eagles, coyotes, foxes, and badgers. Approximately 150 species benefit from prairie dogs and the habitat they create. Yet prairie dog numbers have declined dramatically within the last 150 years due to poisoning, shooting, farming and other types of habitat loss, and plague, an exotic disease that is extremely lethal to prairie dogs.
“A landscape without prairie dogs is a landscape in poverty,” according to Jones. “Prairie dogs support a broad diversity of species and deserve strong protections in recognition of their importance to the prairie ecosystem.”
Amidst a generally bleak assessment, this year’s report highlights some success stories in prairie dog conservation. A team of scientists is developing and testing a sylvatic plague vaccine that could mitigate one of the greatest threats to prairie dogs—plague, which was inadvertently introduced to North America in the early 1900’s and is transmitted through the bites of infected fleas. Prairie dogs have no natural immunity to plague, and an outbreak can rapidly cause 90 percent mortality or more in a colony. The vaccine, developed by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, in collaboration with colleagues at other federal agencies and the University of Wisconsin, has proven effective in laboratory tests. It is now undergoing field safety trials.
Arizona, which consistently leads western states on the report card, was graded a “B” for its continuing work to reintroduce black-tailed prairie dogs, which were extirpated from the state in the early 1900s. The Town of Telluride, Colorado, in partnership with WildEarth Guardians, crafted a “natural dispersal” management plan that prohibits lethal control of prairie dogs on the town’s valley floor open space and allows the prairie dogs to expand their habitat. The Southern Plain Land Trust is working to protect habitat for prairie dogs in southeastern Colorado, and the U.S. Forest Service is facilitating relocation of prairie dogs in Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. The report also offers tips for coexisting with prairie dogs on your own property.
The Report Card
State or Federal Agency Grade
Bureau of Land Management D-
Environmental Protection Agency F
National Park Service B
U.S. Forest Service C
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service D+
U.S.D.A. Wildlife Services F
New Mexico D-
North Dakota F
South Dakota F
For more information, click here.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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