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February 6, 2008


Thunder Basin prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets under the gun

LARAMIE – Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and other conservation groups criticized the Thunder Basin National Grassland Prairie Dog Strategy, created by the Forest Service, for failing to adequately protect native wildlife, including black-tailed prairie dogs and the black-footed ferret.

The proposed Forest Service Strategy expands its authority to allow poisoning (often in the form of toxic rolled oats) and shooting of the prairie dogs on the publicly-owned Grassland, even though listed as a Forest Sensitive species, meaning it is on the brink of being listed as Threatened or Endangered.

More troubling, this expansion is proposed in spite of the fact that the prairie dog is also the primary food source for the Endangered Black-footed ferret which is scheduled for re-introduction on the Grassland under the National Ferret Recovery Program. Poisoning in the Thunder Basin is currently limited to the protection of cemeteries, private and public facilities and residences and to protect public health and safety.

The question must be raised, “Where are the logic, common sense, and science that would support expanding the poisoning and shooting of a native animal that is already on the brink of being listed as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act?”

University of Wyoming prairie dog shooting investigators Jonathan Pauli and Steven Buskirk stated, “Our results suggest that recreational shooting of prairie dogs contributes to the problem of lead intoxication in wildlife food chains that include prairie dogs.”

Duane Short, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance Wild Species Program Director said, "Despite the fact that in 2002, a two-month plague outbreak killed off 17,700 of 21,000 acres of active prairie dog colonies in the Thunder Basin, the Forest Service has proposed to limit Thunder Basin core prairie dog habitat to only 18,000 acres. And they propose to expand poisoning and/or shooting, if necessary, to protect their prescribed but unnatural 18,000 acre size limit, a limit only 300 acres more than killed by the 2002 plague.”

Black-footed ferrets depend almost entirely on prairie dogs as a food source and the black-tailed prairie dog itself is currently under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Endangered Species Act protection. Black-tailed prairie dogs have declined by 95% across their range due to shrinking habitat, drought, Sylvatic plague, and shooting and poisoning on public and private land. According to Short, “The Forest Service appears willing to gamble the long-term survival of Thunder Basin prairie dog towns and ferret recovery against a very narrow and uncertain margin of error."

Known to ecologists as a "keystone species" for grasslands, the future of Black-tailed prairie dogs directly or indirectly affects the survival of many other sensitive species such as the burrowing owl, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, swift fox and especially the Endangered black-footed ferret.

Recently retired professor from the University of Wyoming, Departments of Geology and Geophysics and Zoology and Physiology, Jason A. Lillegraven, stated, “There no is biological justification for taking environmental risks associated with poison application to colonies of prairie dogs on public lands. American taxpayers should not be expected to shoulder the financial costs of the poisonings?”

Mike Lockhart, Coordinator of the National Black-footed ferret Recovery Program, retired with 32 years service to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charges in an internal memo that his former regional director and U.S. Forest Service officials bowed to political pressure in decisions involving ferrets and prairie dogs.  Lockhart referred to prairie dog population size limits and overall weaker protections. "If you're going to do that [impose size limits on prairie dog towns] you're going to at least hinder growth on that recovery population, if not take it backwards," Lockhart stated.

The natural prairie dog/black-footed ferret equation is quite simple. Black-footed ferrets need prairie dogs, and lots of them, to survive.

Contact Information

Duane Short , Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, (307) 742-7978

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Biodiversity Conservation Alliance
P.O. Box 1512, Laramie, WY 82073
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