FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A prairie dog found in four Southwestern states won't be added to the federal list of endangered or threatened species, eliminating the possibility that developers would need permits on federal land when disturbing the animals' habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday that threats to the Gunnison prairie dog that include agriculture, grazing, invasive species, urbanization, and oil and gas operations won't cause the animal to become extinct soon or in the foreseeable future. The prairie dogs make their homes in grasslands and intermountain valleys of northern Arizona, southwestern and south-central Colorado, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.
While outbreaks of plague have nearly decimated some colonies, federal officials say the populations are quick to rebound and are stable. Recreational shooting also has reduced populations, but officials say those impacts aren't widespread in the prairie dogs' 36,000-square-mile range.
WildEarth Guardians and dozens of other organizations and individuals petitioned Fish and Wildlife in 2004 to list the prairie dogs as endangered or threatened. The agency determined the listing wasn't warranted, but a smaller group that included WildEarth Guardians challenged the finding.
Fish and Wildlife later found that populations in parts of Colorado and New Mexico that are wetter and higher in elevations than prairie land were eligible for protection, primarily because of the effects of sylvatic plague, a flea-borne bacterial disease. The U.S. District Court in Arizona said the agency could not divide the species and ordered a new review.
Taylor Jones of WildEarth Guardians said the federal government has dodged its responsibility to protect a species that exists in 5 percent of its historic range.
Arizona, New Mexico and Utah consider the prairie dogs a species of greatest conservation need, but that designation doesn't provide any regulatory protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service said states actively are managing prairie dog populations through agreements and strategies.
In Santa Fe, N.M., developers must relocate Gunnison's prairie dogs to an approved site in the city before building.
Final or draft resource management plans covering U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Utah and New Mexico include conservation measures to minimize the impacts of oil and gas activities on the prairie dogs, but those in Colorado and Arizona don't specifically mention the animals.
Jones said protecting prairie dogs- a nemesis of farmers, ranchers and developers- isn't a high priority but should be. The group is looking at challenging the decision against adding them to the endangered species list, she said.
``The impact is going to be extremely high,'' she said. ``It's going to be business as usual, which is to remove the prairie dogs, plow over them, build on top of them.''