Resolution on the Decline of Prairie Dogs and the Grassland Ecosystem in North America

WHEREAS, prairie dogs (black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison's, Mexican, and Utah) are native inhabitants of the grasslands of North America and, as a group, have been continuously declining throughout their range so that their continued existence and the existence of the associated grassland ecosystem is in question; and

WHEREAS, decades of determined efforts at eradication by federal, state, and local governments, epizootics of plague, recreational shooting, and habitat destruction have caused extirpations of prairie dog towns and reductions of populations in midwestern and western North America; and

WHEREAS, prairie dogs currently occupy a small portion (estimated at about 2%) of their original range in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and relatively little native prairie dog habitat now remains in midwestern and western North America; and

WHEREAS, ranges and populations of five species of prairie dog continue to decline and three of these species are already listed as endangered (Mexican-US and Mexico) or threatened (Utah-US, black-tailed-Mexico); and

WHEREAS, prairie dogs are important species in the native prairie grassland ecosystem; and

WHEREAS, there are many other species, such as black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls, which are listed as endangered or threatened species in North America that have been documented as being totally or partially dependent on prairie dogs; and

WHEREAS, prairie dogs provide invaluable ecological functions to the prairie ecosystem through their burrowing activities, grass clipping, and construction of burrow systems which are used as essential habitat by many other prairie species, activities that contribute to nutrient cycling and enhance plant biodiversity through providing substrate for species that normally rely on such disturbances; and

WHEREAS, although prairie dogs may compete for prairie grasses and space with livestock, prairie dogs have been shown to consume only about 4-7% of the forage that otherwise would be eaten by cattle, and we know of no data supporting the contention that injury to livestock grazing in prairie dog colonies is greater than to livestock grazing elsewhere; and

WHEREAS, grasses on prairie dog towns have been demonstrated to have higher protein levels and better digestibility than other prairie grasses, and constitute the highest quality grasses in the grassland ecosystem, thereby creating better habitat for bison, pronghorn, and cattle; and

WHEREAS, the potential risks to humans of prairie dog plague have been shown by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be extremely small (CDC has reported that <6% of human cases in the U.S. since records were kept were linked to prairie dogs); and

WHEREAS, a prairie dog ecosystem may need to be a certain minimum size to be viable, but most prairie dog towns today range from less than one hundred to a few hundred acres, and research is needed to identify fragmentation effects, such as disease (plague), natural catastrophes, and loss of genetic diversity, and prairie dog habitat requirements; and

WHEREAS, continued eradication programs (shooting, poisoning, vacuuming, bulldozing) and land use practices continue to devastate prairie dog populations; and

WHEREAS, a paradox exists between the federally- funded eradication programs and the mandated recovery of several species listed in the United States, including the endangered black-footed ferret, whose existence has been shown to be entirely dependent (requiring 100% prairie dog habitat, 90-100% prairie dogs as food) on the presence of viable prairie dog populations; and

WHEREAS, the loss of the prairie dog from North America will result in a loss to our national heritage, including the prairie grassland culture of the United States, Canada, and Mexico and will result in the grassland ecosystem of North America being forever altered;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the American Society of Mammalogists, meeting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, 6-10 June 1998, calls for an integrated strategy for conserving prairie dogs in grassland ecosystems of North America to address both public and private lands, including calling on the appropriate agencies of the national governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico each to (1) form an interagency task force to review the conservation status of prairie dogs and grassland ecosystems in their respective countries; (2) end the funding of prairie dog eradication programs and, instead, integrate prairie dogs into the management of grasslands; (3) consider that, when prairie dog control on federal lands is deemed necessary, it occur only when it is consistent with maintaining ecosystem values or where it is well-supported by data indicating it is effective and essential at maintaining uses of the systems that have a legitimate higher priority use; (4) assess existing conservation plans of prairie dogs in grassland ecosystems; (5) initiate major research and education programs to enlighten people about the prairie grassland ecosystem, how a healthy prairie ecosystem is supposed to function, and the importance of prairie dogs in that system and to provide possible management options; and (6) develop land-use practices and promote legislation that make the fostering of prairie dog populations on private lands profitable and beneficial.