Utah prairie dogs are making a comeback — so much so that the Division of Wildlife Resources is recommending the animal be removed from the endangered species list.
The Beehive State is home to three subspecies of prairie dogs: the white-tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison’s prairie dog and the Utah prairie dog. The Utah-specific subspecies has been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, but its current status is “threatened,” meaning the species is likely to become endangered.
In order to be removed from the list, the species must meet three criteria, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: the population must be considered large enough and stable to not be threatened in the foreseeable future; threats to the species must be eliminated or controlled; and mechanisms must be implemented to prevent future species decline.
Its delisting is “probably, quite honestly, years away,” said Kim Hersey, the mammal conservation coordinator with the DWR. “What we’re doing is trying to make the case for delisting and putting forward a plan that will manage the Utah prairie dog after delisting.”
Utah prairie dogs are only found in southwestern Utah, in areas like Buckskin Valley in Iron County, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are an important prey item for raptors and other mammal species, Hersey said, and provide burrows for animals like burrowing owls.
Extensive research and conservation efforts have allowed the species’ population to recover, and the animals have nearly tripled in population since 1971, according to a news release from the DWR.
“We’re really laying out what population sizes we’ll manage, where we’ll manage for them, and how we’ll address the threats to the species like plague, habitat loss,” Hersey said.
The biggest change would involve being able to better respond to “nuisance concerns” and other issues that prairie dogs cause to local communities, she noted.
If the species is delisted, landowners would be able to take more aggressive measures in removing nuisance prairie dogs, because permitting is currently required to remove any of the rodents while the species is under federal control.
While the species remains on the list, the DWR has a trapping and relocation program for the species.
“When prairie dogs are a nuisance situation, we’ll do our best to try to trap those and move those to colonies that are on federal or protected lands,” Hersey said.
That can involve constructing artificial structures and managing plagues and habitats on federal lands, “where there’s a much lower level of of nuisance activity.”
“We’ve worked really closely with our land management partners on that over the years,” she said.