Prairie dogs are keystone species that endangered black-footed ferrets depend on for survival. But a century of mismanagement has reduced prairie dogs to five percent of their historic numbers (see "Open Season on "Varmints,"" cover story, July/August 2004). "The political climate for prairie dog conservation remains abysmal," says Erin Robertson of Center for Native Ecosystems.
In August 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the black-tailed prairie dog from the list of candidate species for endangered status. The next day, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds announced plans to resume shooting and poisoning prairie dogs, at the request of ranchers. "In both 2004 and 2005, the Forest Service proposed prairie dog poisoning campaigns in Conata Basin, South Dakota, which is the most successful black-footed ferret reintroduction site. Through lawsuits we saved 2,000 acres, but many thousands more were poisoned," Robertson says.
Additional petitions by conservation groups to protect white-tailed and Gunnison’s prairie dogs were denied in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Despite these denials, Nicole Rosmarino of Forest Guardians says, "We believe these petitions provided the impetus for the states to get together and start mapping out a strategy for conservation. But federal protection is imperative."