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05:49 PM ET 03/23/99

Prairie Dog May Become Protected

Prairie Dog May Become Protected

By H. JOSEF HEBERT
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Interior Department said Tuesday it will begin a nine-month review to see if the black-tailed prairie dog, considered a pest by some and an imperiled critter by others, should be protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the first step toward possibly protecting the historically durable rodent whose range extends across much of the West from Montana and the Dakotas to New Mexico.

Peter Gober, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said the black-tailed prairie dog has been called ``one of the most hated and most loved species in the country'' and there is reason to believe it may need protection.

But Gober emphasized that no decision is expected to be made right away on whether it should be listed as endangered or even threatened, a less restrictive category. He said there was not enough evidence of the species' decline to warrant an emergency listing.

The National Wildlife Federation had filed a petition seeking protection for the black-tailed prairie dog, saying the species is in danger of extinction.

Government biologists acknowledge the prairie dog numbers have declined dramatically for various reasons including urban sprawl, ranchers shooting or poisoning the animals, and a disease known as the sylvatic plague that has wiped out huge colonies.

But the biologists say the animals have a history of rebounding and are among the most durable on the prairie.

``We need to know a whole lot more before we can make a call on whether the species need the protection of the act,'' said Gober, who is based in Pierre, S.D., and is the agency's chief biologist dealing with prairie dog colonies.

After the 90-day review, the agency could determine that listing the species as endangered is needed, is not needed, or may be warranted but precluded because of considerations involving other species.

At one time there were believed to be as many as 5 billion black-tailed prairie dogs across the West, but there are probably no more than 10 million today, Gober said. As recently as three years ago there were 100 million to 250 million acres of prairie dog colonies, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Gober said currently there may be about 1 million acres of so-called ``dog towns.''

Nevertheless, talk of federal protection of the pesky animals _ small rodents closely related to squirrels _ is controversial throughout the West. Ranchers complain that they run rampant and question why they could be even considered imperiled.

If given protection under the Endangered Species Act, ranchers and developers would be required to take precautions to protect the animals and comply with federal regulations to protect their grassland habitat.

Gober said he could not predict the impact on ranchers and development.

While prairie dogs may be considered endearing by some, they have been a scourge to many landowners, ranchers and developers. Often they burrow extensive tunnel networks, kill grass and destroy hay fields. Their holes pose dangers to cattle and horses, cattlemen complain.

In recent years, a growing number of prairie dogs have migrated to near metropolitan areas, their colonies forming rings around cities such as Denver and Lubbock, Texas, Gober said.

Outside Lubbock, a field near a local television station, has long been home to a large prairie dog colony. One of the city's parks has been dubbed ``Prairie Dog Town'' and visitors hike through a field full of dogs.