The United States Forest Service (USFS) is set to release an amendment to the Thunder Basin National Grassland management plan. There are five proposed alternatives to amend black-tailed prairie dog management on the grassland-a highly controversial subject for local landowners and wildlife advocates.
The accepted amendment will change a previous amendment from 2015.
"It [the previous amendment] didn't allow the Forest Service to utilize as many tools as we would like or be as responsive as we would like to respond to population swings for a species that is notorious for up and down population swings," said Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist for the Medicine Bow and Route National Forests and the Thunder Basin National Grassland.
"That was one of the primary objectives of this amendment, was to be more responsive in our management, and then be able to keep those population levels more stable. Which then gives more clarity to the grazing that can happen with the domestic cattle and then with the associated species that are tied to prairie dogs that are impacted by those swings."
Voos also said the amendment will lead to better overall ecosystem health.
Ranchers who graze livestock on the grassland are a major stakeholder in the management plan. Their concern is that prairie dogs compete with livestock for grass and their burrows make the area more dangerous for horses and cattle.
The main argument against amending the prairie dog management plan comes from wildlife groups like Defenders of Wildlife. It says that populations of prairie dogs, which are the primary prey of the endangered black-footed ferret, would be damaged by these amendments.
"This area was called the Black-Footed Ferret Reintroduction Area. And so that's totally being jettisoned from the plan and actually, on the ground," said Lauren McCain, senior federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife. "And this basically eliminates Thunder Basin as having a hope of being able to support black-footed ferrets in the future."
The prairie dog management plan has been controversial since its conception in 2009. The final record of decision from the Forest Service is planned to come out in the next couple of days. Both sides expect the plan will still be a point of contention after the amendment.
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