BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG | LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKEN | BLACK-FOOTED FERRET
     (Keystone Species)            (Umbrella Species)          (Flagship Species)

The environmental activist community labels species under three general categories: Keystone Species (i.e. – Prairie dogs); Umbrella Species (i.e. – Lesser prairie-chicken); and Flagship Species (i.e. – Black-footed ferret).

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq, requires federal agencies to use “all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate” plans and actions in order to attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences (42 U.S.C. § 4331 (b)). The Act also mandates that agencies cooperate with local governments to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generation of Americans.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog (BTPD) — Keystone Species

Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonized grassland.
Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonized grassland.

The Black-tailed prairie dog (BTPD) is a rodent that has been labeled a keystone species, asserting the ecosystem they inhabit would collapse without them, yet, a collaborative study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Park Service (NPS) found, “their [prairie dogs’] influence on prairie vertebrates may be less than previously suggested. Species richness and abundance patterns were variable … and were not consistently higher on prairie dog colonies compared to uncolonized areas.”

KNRC boards of county commissioners are acutely aware of the economic harmed caused by uncontrolled infestations of BTPD, and the risk BTPD pose to the health and safety of their citizens is an ever present concern.

In 2015, there were two fatal cases of bubonic plague suspected to have originated from prairie dog colonies in eastern Colorado, a previously healthy 16-year-old athlete in Larimer County, and an adult in Pueblo County. New Mexico confirmed four cases of plague, one fatal, in 2015, and Colorado reported four cases in 2014. All were in areas where plague was endemic in local prairie dog colonies.

According to a National Park Service lab manual (NPS-LM), “Prairie Dogs can carry disease organisms that are harmful to humans and to other prairie dogs. The most common disease affecting both humans and prairie dogs is plague. In humans, the disease is called bubonic plague . . . Plague is transmitted to humans by fleas that have been infected by rodents that carry the disease.”

The NPS-LM continued, “risk of getting tick-borne diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever (tick-borne typhus fever) and Lyme disease. Tularemia (rabbit or deerfly fever) also can be transmitted by ticks. Hantavirus (HPS — Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome) a severe, potentially lethal disease, has the potential to be carried by all rodents including the prairie dog. One may become infected by breathing or ingesting the virus from areas where contaminated rodent urine, droppings and saliva are found. Being bitten by an infected rodent is also a source of infection.” And,  “Do not overlook the possibility of rabies. Any mammal can be infected. Avoid any animal exhibiting abnormal (strange) behavior!”

Ranchers and farmers can attest to the destructive nature of prairie dogs and their impacts on native prairie and cultivated lands — ranging from personal property damage to income loss — when left uncontrolled. Ranchers’ financial loss was quantified in the aiz-year study, Are livestock weight gains affected by black-tailed prairie dogs? It found, “livestock weight gains decreased linearly” with the amount of infestation by the rodent BTPD. The loss of weight gain created lower “estimated economic returns.” Native grassland with 20% of the area infested “reduced the estimated value . . . by $14.95 per steer” or with 60% of the area infested “$37.91 per steer . . . or about 14%.” In addition to decreased weight gain, ranchers have to reduce stocking rates to compensate for BTPD competing with livestock for available forage. With BTPD infestations and accompanying burrows, livestock leg breaks are believed to result from animals stepping into the burrow and generally necessitates putting the injured animal down — rendering it a complete loss for the rancher.

In December 2008, the most recent attempt to list the rodent BTPD met with great resistance, including 38 western Kansas Boards of County Commissioners adopting resolutions, which notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) of each county’s assertion of their right of coordination and the existence of their policy against listing the BTPD. The resolutions pointed out the facts showed that by numbers and by resilience, the rodent did not need ESA protection. USFWS had assembled a record of more than 30,000 pages in an attempt to support listing  the BTPD. On December 3, 2009, the USFWS issued a “Not Warranted” finding for the species.

Repeated attempts to list the BTPD and other species created KNRC interest in the federally listed Utah prairie dog case working its way through the court system. On November 6, 2014, Federal Judge Dee Benson decided in favor of the plaintiffs, People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO), striking down as unconstitutional, the federal government’s regulations for the Utah prairie dog, since it does not substantially affect “interstate commerce.” Attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) noted that they brought the suit “on behalf of PETPO in Cedar City, Utah, whose members — property owners and the local government — have been restricted from using their land.” The case is People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners vs. United States Fish and Wildlife Service; et al., Case No. 2:13-cv-00278-DB.

In their press release, PLF attorney Jonathan Wood, who argued the case, said “This ruling frees Cedar City  from unconstitutional regulations making it impossible to build homes, protect the airport runway and the sanctity of loved ones’ final resting places from prairie dog pothole.” and “Now, these property owners and local government, needn’t fear the heavy hand of the federal government when they use and maintain their property, and do what most of us take for granted.” Mr. Wood continued, “The federal government may take whatever measures it likes on its own property, in order to protect the prairie dog. But it can’t violate the U.S. Constitution by taking away the property rights of private citizens or local governments.”

Black-tailed Prairie Dog burrowing damage.
Black-tailed Prairie Dog burrowing damage.

The Utah prairie dog, along with the BTPD, are two of five prairie dog species with range in the United States. USFWS actions in applying the ESA’s anti-“take” rules were challenged by the PLF lawsuit. Prior to the decision striking down the rule, violators were subject to fines or even imprisonment. PLF emphasized, “except in limited areas and situations, the federal anti-“take” decree blocked people in and around Cedar City from taking measures to control the burgeoning population of prairie dogs in their midst.”

PLF reported that  Judge Benson agreed  with their position — “if the federal government could do this, there was “no logical stopping point” to their power.”

At the state level, Kansas’ Attorney General Schmidt joined with Utah and 7 other states to file an amicus brief asking the appeals court to uphold the decision declaring federal regulations for the Utah prairie dog unconstitutional. Federal attorneys are appealing — arguing that most protected species live only in a single state and courts have long upheld federal management authority. The states are arguing it is their authority to manage animals that live only within their borders. On September 28, 2015, oral arguments  were held and the decision is pending.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC) — Umbrella Species

In 2013, again faced with a listing proposal — the Lesser prairie-chicken — a majority of the 38 affected counties, were once again brought together and the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition (KNRC) was formed to work to prevent the LPC being listing — which commissioners believed would result in the devastation of their counties’ and the region’s economy — and to protect their citizens from the myriad impending federal regulations.

Many believe the listing of the Lesser prairie-chicken (LPC) — labeled an umbrella species — was not about conserving the bird but the larger goal of controlling private property and protecting the BTPD and other grassland species not warranting protection; viewing it as a backdoor method of protection, since it proved too challenging for the USFWS to garner sufficient support to list the rodent. As an umbrella species — a species that indirectly creates an “umbrella”  of protection over other species within its range — the LPC’s range overlapped a majority of the claimed historic BTPD range in the five states where the LPC is found. The conclusion was supported by the Lesser prairie-chicken Partner Meeting (April 24-25, 2012 – Oklahoma City, OK) presentation by Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), as well as a Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability (CESAR) report, Data Do Not Support the Proposed listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in which the USFWS Literature Cited to support the proposed listing was peer reviewed by scientists with no bias in the outcome, and found to not support the proposed rule.

Black-footed Ferret (BFF) — Flagship Species

The Black-footed ferret (BFF) has been labeled the short grass prairie flagship species — defined  as a popular, charismatic species — putting a ‘warm & fuzzy’ face on federal control of an area. The theory is that the charisma of the Black-footed ferret’s “masked bandit” face will help engage the public in a nocturnal animal they are highly unlikely to ever view except in a zoo or workshop setting to support protecting prairie dogs.

While the BFF does not directly damage neighboring land owners’ property, BFFs almost exclusively feed on the five destructive species of prairie dogs with data showing that one BFF family requires 225 acres of prairie dog infested land.

BFFs require significant management, leaving many to believe the release sites will never be more than “open air zoos,” which does not meet the intent of the ESA for recovery of listed species. Extraordinary intervention to boost survival at BFF sites ranges from vaccinating BFFs against plague and canine distemper to spreading flea powder over thousands of acres in an effort to control plague outbreaks. Even with costly human intervention, the numbers are not encouraging — agencies report only 300 adults established in the wild, which reveals the program is failing to meet the goal of 1500 breeding adults by 2010 by ≤ 80%.

An example of the failing numbers — through Oct. 2015 of the Logan County, Kansas “experimental” BFF project, 269 BFFs have been released or born-on-site, which translates into a 95.2% mortality rate over the life of the project. Fall 2015 demonstrated a 56% ferret mortality rate from Fall 2014, which was preceded by a 50% mortality rate between 2013 and 2014.

2010 saw the highest reported number of BFFs at the site. Upon further scrutiny, data showed USFWS released ≥ 40% of the 106 ‘high’ count – confirming the ‘high’ was heavily augmented by captive raised/released ferrets. Fall of 2011 found only 38 BFFs after breeding season and Spring 2012 showed 22 survivors. As long as BFFs require human intervention to survive, it does not appear the 300-500 reportedly established in the wild meet the definition of ‘self-sustaining’ breeding adult populations.

Range-wide through Fall 2011, USFWS reported $30 Million spent — not including other federal or state agency expenditures. Of the $30 Million, USFWS reported 2007-2012 expenditures on the Smoky Valley release site in Logan County, at $575,000. A conservative estimate through Fall 2015 – based on reported expenditures – suggests ≥ $800,000 expended over the nine years of the Smoky Valley project in Logan County.

In Logan County, USFWS issued a grant for a Kansas State University (KSU) study, Efficacy of Native Grassland Barriers at Limiting Prairie Dog Dispersal in Logan County, Kansas by Zachary Eddy. USFWS hoped the study would show that vegetative barriers would limit the migration of BTPD on to neighboring private property, where BTPD were not welcome. The conclusion of the study in part, found, “All research suggested the barrier, as constructed, was not effective at slowing or stopping dispersal away from the ferret reintroduction site. While barrier condition improved over time, areas of poor quality were always present. Prairie dogs reestablished extirpated colonies in both years of study, and active burrows were well within average dispersal distances for prairie dogs. Though visual counts indicated that population densities of immigrant prairie dogs were low, burrow activity levels were high. This leads to repeated high-cost rodenticide application by landowners whom do not want prairie dogs on their properties and continued tension between stakeholders.” and “Both the parametric and non-parametric analyses showed overwhelmingly that the native grassland barrier around Ferret Reintroduction Site 1 (FRS 1) was unsuccessful at limiting emigration.”

The BFF program’s dependence on BTPD infestations, which cannot be confined to the project areas, has continued to cause economic harm to neighboring landowners range-wide through repeated costly BTPD control, injured livestock and lowered stocking rates. An example showed one landowner subjected to the equivalent of 100 bare pitchers mounds to each football field sized area (roughly one acre) of his native grassland.

The Black-footed Ferret Recovery program’s reintroduction” sites range-wide have failed to meet the NEPA mandated requirements “to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generation of Americans. or to attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences. 

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