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Forest Service Releases Final Decision On Thunder Basin National Grassland

Asiir via CC-BY-SA-2.5

For years, a wide variety of stakeholders have been working to come up with how to better manage prairie dogs in the Thunder Basin National Grassland. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the U.S. Forest Service announced its final decision for its management plan amendment.

Prairie dogs will be managed with an objective of 10,000 acres and a 7,500-acre area during drought conditions. That's down from the current management of 33,000 acres during normal conditions.

"Reduction in the overall objective for prairie dog colony acres from 33,000 to 10,000 acres on the National Grassland is intended to reduce resource conflicts related to prairie dog occupancy and livestock grazing," reads the plan.

It will also put in place a recreational shooting ban from Feb. 1 to Aug. 15 each year and allow poisoning as methods of control.

Aaron Voos, public affairs officer with Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland, said the decision focuses mostly on stabilizing prairie dog populations because their colonies can rapidly grow and shrink.

"We're trying to, as best we can, with a species that is volatile, and is going to be up and down, we want to try and stabilize those acres as much as possible, which then allows for better and more consistent management," he said.

Voos said no stakeholder is likely 100 percent happy with the final decision.

"We're looking for a balance between conservation and control," he said. "There's two pretty polarized sides to this issue, and we're probably not making either one of them completely happy. But that's okay. Our job is to manage those lands for multiple use and find that balance."

Conservation and wildlife groups say the move will drastically affect the potential reintroduction of the endangered black-footed ferret that relies on prairie dogs as a food source.

"We really did lose a lot because the management area is now shrunk in terms of the actual colonies that we can conserve for ferrets in the future," said Chamois Andersen, senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has named the Thunder Basin National Grassland as one of the top areas to reintroduce the endangered species.

Andersen said she feels that the Forest Service has sided more with agricultural interests rather than conservation.

But Voos added that it's the responsibility of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, both of which have been stakeholders in discussions, to actually reintroduce the ferret onto the lands.

"That's another major shift, is just that focus and habitat is something that the Forest Service can and should manage falls under our responsibility, so more in line with what the agency actually can and should have responsibility for," he said.

Dru Palmer, a natural resource policy advisor who represents Campbell, Converse and Weston county commissioners, said the local governments did not get everything they were hoping for but they feel this decision will lead to better management of the prairie dogs overall.

"The numbers that were outlined in the older plans were not achievable," Palmer said. "We had highs and lows that allowed for growth of prairie dog members to a point that we could not get them back into a manageable situation."

Despite the federal agency's final decision, conflict is far from over and all stakeholders say there is still plenty of work to be done.

"Quite frankly, what was in place was not working. And we needed to try something else. And so this is our best effort to try something else, and hopefully, take a bad situation and turn it into something that can have some positive results in the future," Voos said.

Palmer said local governments will continue to be involved, especially in the implementation process.

"The working group will play a significant role in making recommendations on management decisions to the Forest Service, and that will be important as we identify areas where we need to prioritize and put our resources or treatment for control or restoration," Palmer said.

In a press release, conservation group Western Watersheds Project said they are considering possible litigation over the decision.

The plan, barring any legal stays on the decision, will go into effect in the new year.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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