The U.S. Forest Service released a proposed plan to amend the Thunder Basin National Grasslands management of prairie dogs, but some wildlife groups are unhappy with the result, even after years of stakeholder collaborations.
Russ Bacon is the Forest Supervisor for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. He said the species’ population exploded a couple years back, making it impossible to keep them on the 18,000 acres.
“We didn’t have the tools to react effectively once the population got over that number,” Bacon explained. “So, then we went from a population of around there to 75,000 acres in just a very short period of time.”
Bacon said the plan gives the forest service more options to poison or shoot the animals to control their numbers in case that happens again.
Ranchers who tend livestock on horseback on the grassland say prairie dog burrows make their work more dangerous, that prairie dogs compete with livestock for grasses and they pose a health threat of plague.
The wildlife group Defenders of Wildlife has participated in working groups for over a decade at Thunder Basin and Spokeman Jonathan Proctor said, in the previous plan, the species couldn’t be shot or killed on an 18,000-acre protected area. If the plan is adopted, he said, they could be killed anywhere.
“It’s extremely biased,” Proctor said. “I don’t see how anyone could think otherwise when you have livestock grazing on the entire national grassland, but protection for prairie dogs on less than 10 percent and now they’re going to remove that.”
Proctor said 95 percent of prairie dog colonies are gone and that’s hurting other species.
“Prairie dogs are incredibly important for a whole host of grassland wildlife that depend on them or benefit from them, well over 100 species.”
He said, one of those is the black footed ferret whose only food is prairie dogs. The ferret is on the Endangered Species List and was once considered extinct.
The hope was to eventually reintroduce black footed ferrets in Thunder Basin.
But Forest Service Supervisor Russ Bacon said, the plan isn’t written in stone.
“It’s really important to know that a proposed action is by no means a final answer. It’s the start of a conversation through our environmental review process or NEPA.”
The prairie dog action plan is open for a 30-day public comment period, and a meeting at the Converse County Public Library in Douglas will be held on May 6 at 4 p.m. A webinar of that meeting will also be available on the forest service website.