Colo. prairie dogs endangered, not listed |

Colo. prairie dogs endangered, not listed

DENVER, Colorado ” The Gunnison’s prairie dog qualifies for federal protection as an endangered species at higher elevations of Colorado and New Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday.

But the agency’s regional office in suburban Denver said the animal can’t be officially listed now because other species have higher priority for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency said the Gunnison’s prairie dog in central and south-central Colorado and north-central New Mexico are most at risk. Populations at lower elevations ” in Arizona and Utah and elsewhere in Colorado and New Mexico ” don’t warrant protection, the agency said.

The agency said the sylvatic plague poses the greatest threat to the animal, and those at higher elevations are more susceptible to the disease, possibly because they live in moister areas where plague-carrying fleas thrive.

They have been “widely and severely affected by plague” and don’t recover as quickly as lower-elevation colonies, the agency said.

The agency said the Gunnison’s is not in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered across its entire range. But in the higher elevation areas, it’s likely to become endangered or threatened by 2042 because of the plague.

In 2006, Fish and Wildlife ruled the animal did not warrant protection, but officials launched a review of that decision last year after settling a lawsuit by Santa Fe, N.M.-based Forest Guardians and other groups.

Environmentalists accused the agency of “junk science” and claimed Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department, pressured federal biologists to deny protection to the Gunnison’s.

Forest Guardians has since merged with the Boulder-based wolf-advocacy group Sinapu under the name WildEarth Guardians.

The group did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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