Utah is trying to delist “endangered” prairie dog species and take over management of the creature ‘ Utah

A prairie dog feeds in southwest Utah in this undated photo released by Forest Guardians. The species has been protected federally since the 1970s, and Utah wildlife managers are now taking steps to take control of the species in the future. (Associated Press)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah prairie dog — a species found only in southwest Utah — used to roam throughout southwest Utah.

It is a rodent resembling squirrels, chipmunks and groundhogs and can reach a weight of several pounds. The nonprofit conservation group NatureServe notes that 95,000 prairie dogs were recorded in the 1920s. That number has dropped to just a few thousand as development of the region, drought and other factors have altered their habitat.

Kimberly Hersey, the mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, points out that the species first received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, when its small population continued to dwindle and plans were made to poison the remaining animals were .

“The mandate was to prevent the extinction and restore the species,” she said, noting that there were few exceptions that allowed Utahans to kill a Utah prairie dog.

Since then the species has been in decline. The US Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded it to “Vulnerable” in 1984, where it remains today. Biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources count Utah’s prairie dogs every spring and find an average of 5,760 individuals — 2½ times the population in 1971.

However, Hersey explains that the Utah prairie dog’s population as a whole is closer to 40,000 because a summer peak population is often seven times the spring census estimate as its recovery continues.

This recovery is why wildlife managers in Utah are now poised to ask the federal government to eliminate the species, which would shift management of the species to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The department unveiled a proposed plan Tuesday that would replace current federal regulations should the Utah prairie dog be removed from the endangered species list.

The document said Utah would continue to monitor Utah’s prairie dog populations and work to kill disease-carrying fleas in dens. It would also require surveys before any new development in the area, while also “relocating prairie dogs from these developing areas to public lands with suitable habitat.” Other work calls for the removal of predators from “areas with small, vulnerable colonies.”

The department is also trying to change the process that allows residents to remove or kill animals deemed a nuisance, meaning there would still be a process for legally killing a prairie dog in some cases and illegal killings government poaching would be subject to legislation. Residents would not need a permit if the animal was in their home or on their property, but there would be a system to regulate farm permits.

“The plan will continue to manage the population through ongoing surveillance while helping to address concerns and conflicts with private landowners over potential damage,” Hersey said in a statement Tuesday. “We are proposing to make a few changes to the current rule regarding the entrainment of prairie dogs in situations where there is conflict, while maintaining a healthy population and ongoing conservation efforts.”

In a video explaining the proposal, she also acknowledged that the switch from federal to state control is unlikely to happen overnight. However, the changes may take place in the next few years.

A Utah prairie dog sits in a cage before being fitted with a GPS collar by biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City on Wednesday, August 29, 2018.  The species is found in southwestern Utah, while two other similar species can be found in eastern Utah.
A Utah prairie dog sits in a cage before being fitted with a GPS collar by biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City on Wednesday, August 29, 2018. The species is found in southwestern Utah, while two other similar species can be found in eastern Utah. (Photo: Marc Weaver, KSL-TV)

Management of Utah prairie dogs likely requires some form of strategy given the species has been on the endangered species list for so long and the potential impacts can occur if the species is not protected in some way. Hersey points out that there are “ongoing problems” related to agricultural damage, diseases that the species can transmit and cause human health, and restrictions that have delayed development projects in the region.

All of this took into account attempts to limit protection in the past. For example, in 2018 the US Fish and Wildlife Service relaxed some of its prairie dog regulations in Utah, prompting a lawsuit from the group Friends of Animals.

Hersey said there would be tools to “encourage” coexistence between humans and prairie dogs, such as habitat treatment projects.

Human-prairie dog interactions are also why there have been increasing attempts over the years to move the species to federally protected areas — such as national parks — to further increase the population of the Utah prairie dog while reducing the impact on wildlife minimize people. According to statistics from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, nearly half of Utah’s estimated prairie dog population resides on either public or protected lands.

Biologists have also tried to establish more prairie dog colonies at high altitudes in recent years, because the mountains often have more water- and moisture-rich soils than the lower valleys. This is something that has happened as drought conditions continue to affect southwest Utah, Hersey said.

The department’s proposal will receive public comment before the Utah Wildlife Board votes to approve the plan. The board is scheduled to vote on the issue during its January 3, 2023 meeting. Those who support or oppose the idea can comment on the plan through the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website until 11:59 p.m. on December 20.

If the plan is approved, it still won’t go into effect until the federal government removes the species from the Endangered Species Act’s projections. Because it is unclear when this might happen, there is no real timeline for when Utah’s management plan will begin.

Hersey explained that once a plan is approved, there are a few additional steps that need to be taken. The department will seek a memorandum of agreement with various groups, including local counties and federal agencies, before making a formal request to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to review the Utah prairie dog’s current status. The federal agency will ultimately decide whether to maintain existing protections or remove the species from the list.

“We know this is… likely to take several years,” she said. “In the meantime, we will continue conservation efforts for the species – and hopefully continue to make gains.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter covering general news, nature, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant next to Rochester, New York.

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