05:23 PM ET 07/31/98
Wildlife group says prairie dogs faces danger
By Judith Crosson
DENVER (Reuters) - The once-common prairie dog could become threatened with extinction unless the federal government halts wholesale shootings and poisonings of the burrowing rodent, an environmental group said Friday.

The National Wildlife Federation filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, asking it to issue emergency regulations to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species.

``The National Wildlife Federation has never before filed a listed petition under the Endangered Species Act. So we do not take this action lightly,'' President Mark Van Putten told a news conference in Denver.

``But we believe this is indeed an emergency situation that warrants emergency action'' he said.

The prairie dog is the main source of food for the black footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America.

The prairie dog once ranged over 100 million to 250 million acres of grasslands, but intentional poisoning, disease, unregulated shootings, development and farming have reduced its habitat to between 700,000 to 800,000 acres, said biologistSterling Miller.

A threatened listing, if accepted, would trigger less severe restrictions on farms and real estate developers than anendangered listing.

Nevertheless, the organization recognized the move is controversial because the animal is treated in the plains and western states much the way New Yorkers view rats.

Van Putten said the organization wants an immediate halt to poisonings and shootings on both public and private land. But he said the petition is not primarily aimed at private landholders where small communities of prairie dogs live.

He said it would be a big step if the federal government crafted an organized plan to reconstruct prairie dog habitat on federal lands. But even that could be controversial because many ranchers graze cattle on public lands.

Prairie dogs live in ``towns'' with labyrinth tunnel systems and members take turns keeping watch. When a ``sentry'' sees danger he gives out a warning call so other members of the community will dive into their burrows and wait for the ``all clear'' call before venturing out again.

Sharon Rose of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver said the agency was aware of the danger the animal faces and is considering action.

``Of course this will focus our efforts,'' she said.

The agency has already ordered a halt on Aug. 1 to prairie dog shootings on land the federal government owns in the SouthDakota badlands.

Shooting prairie dogs is a big sport in western states where thousands of the animals are shot despite calls from environmental groups to halt the activity.

No license is needed to shoot prairie dogs, which is incredibly insane.

The National Wildlife Federation said the prairie dog is a key cog in the ecosystem. Besides the black footed ferret, other animals such as the swift fox, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk and burrowing owl feed on prairie dogs.

The prairie dog habitat is found in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

The federal government has 90 days to respond to the emergency petition, but Rose and Van Putten said they could not think of an instance where the government has granted such a request. However, if the government believes a worthy petition has been filed it could take another nine months to seek moreinformation.

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