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Conservation groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service over their new prairie dog management plan

A black-tailed prairie dog comes out of its hole.
Ryan Moehring
USFWS Mountain-Prairie
Black-footed ferrets and several other species rely on healthy prairie dog towns.

Three conservation groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to reverse the 2020 amendment to the Thunder Basin Management Plan. The amendment was announced in December. Western Watersheds Project, Rocky Mountain Wild, and WildEarth Guardians say that the amendment, which shrunk the size of the area managed as prairie dog habitat and changed how their population can be controlled, will have devastating effects. Prairie dogs are important for a variety of species, including the endangered black-footed ferret.

Erik Molvar, director of Western Watersheds Project, said the 2020 amendment just built on the losses of the 2009 amendment.

"That was a plan amendment that was supposed to be a compromise between ranching and wildlife conservation. So wildlife conservation lost, ranching won," he said. "And then the ranchers went back on their agreement and decided to go for the whole enchilada and got the Forest Service to eliminate the designation of black-footed ferret reintroduction habitat, open the entire area to poisoning and shooting."

There is a recreational shooting ban in place from Feb. 1 to Aug. 15 each year on the area managed for prairie dog habitat, but there is no such ban on the rest of the grasslands.

The amendment also reclassified an area designated as "Black-Footed Ferret Reintroduction Habitat" as "Short-Stature Vegetation Emphasis" which Molvar argues will prevent the reintroduction of the ferrets. Thunder Basin National Grassland has been identified as an ideal habitat for black-footed ferret reintroduction.

"They're basically walking away from their obligation to restore that endangered species on one of the largest chunks of federally owned land on the Northern Plains," he said.

But Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest spokesperson Aaron Voos said the obligation to reintroduce black-footed ferrets rested with the Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not the USFS.

"So really important to note that there's very specific language in the amendment that says that this amendment does not preclude the reintroduction of black-footed ferret," he said. "It's also important to note that within the amendment there's definitely a change in focus to focus on habitat availability and stability within that management area for prairie dogs."

Voos said helping stabilize prairie dog populations would benefit all of the species that rely on them.

"There was also a really big issue with our neighbors on the Thunder Basin National Grassland. It's a really intermingled land ownership. And what was happening is there was prairie dog encroachment from National Grassland onto private and state lands," Voos said. "And that was an issue. It was unwanted encroachment. And so that was something that we needed to take a hard look at."

Voos said the management plan has to balance the wants and needs of multiple stakeholders.

"If I were to sum it up, I would say that we were seeking a better balance between conservation and control," he said.

A briefing schedule and time for oral arguments haven't been set yet.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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