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Montana wants prairie dogs from Wyoming

HELENA, Montana ” Montana wildlife officials hoping to strengthen the state’s sensitive population of white-tailed prairie dogs want to obtain some of the squirrel-like rodents from Wyoming, which has a lot more of them.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on Friday plans to decide Montana’s request to trap up to 100 of the prairie dogs ” cousins of the black-tailed prairie dog ” and place them in open country south of Billings.

“Whatever we give Montana would be sort of a drop in the bucket” compared to Wyoming’s relative abundance, said Reg Rothwell, supervisor of biological services for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “We’ve got hundreds of thousands of acres of white-tailed prairie dogs.”

Montana’s known population inhabits only about 250 acres.

Conservation groups sought federal endangered-species protection for the animals in 2004. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied protection and is reconsidering that decision.

Prairie dogs are important to other wildlife species. The endangered black-footed ferret, for example, eats them.

Besides extending across the western two-thirds of Wyoming and inhabiting a small slice of Montana, white-tailed prairie dogs are found in Colorado and Utah.

“We’ve got the most, period,” Rothwell said.

Populations of the burrowing, 1- to 3-pound animals with tails tipped in white are gauged by land area, not by a census.

“Getting an actual head count is difficult,” said Allison Puchniak Begley, a native-species biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings.

All of Montana’s 10 colonies are in Carbon County, which is south of Billings and borders Wyoming. Montana had 15 colonies in the 1970s.

White-tailed prairie dogs have disappeared from about 98 percent of their former habitat in the four states, said Erin Robertson of the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, a conservation group that has demanded federal protection of the species.

Being at the northern edge of the white-tailed prairie dog’s range, Montana does not support as much of the desert grassland-and-shrub habitat that the animals find in the other states, Begley said in a phone interview Friday, a day after she briefed state wildlife commissioners about the pitch to Wyoming.

Disease, conversion of land to agricultural or other uses and lethal action against white-tailed prairie dogs by people who consider them pests have slashed the population, said Erin Robertson of the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, a conservation group that has demanded federal protection of the species. The white-tailed have disappeared from about 98 percent of their former habitat in the four states that have been their historic range, Robertson said.

Only Montana has asked Wyoming for white-tailed prairie dogs, said Rothwell, who recalls his state was asked to take prairie dogs, mostly black-tailed, that advocates believed were displaced by development in Colorado.

“We haven’t taken any,” he said. Given that some people are enthused about prairie dogs and others consider them varmints harmful to cow pastures, “we haven’t wanted to stir the pot,” he said.

Montana classifies white-tailed prairie dogs as a “species of greatest conservation need.”

“It’s one of our highest priorities,” Begley said. “We would like to ensure the viability of white-tailed prairie dogs in Montana.”

There are four other kinds.

The government classifies the Mexican prairie dog as endangered and the Utah prairie dog as threatened. The Gunnison’s prairie dog is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The black-tailed prairie dog was added to a candidate list in 2000 and removed in 2004. Activists are challenging the removal.

Begley said that white-tailed prairie dogs “spend most of their time eating and a lot less time forming bonds with other critters in their colony” than does the black-tailed variety.

Montana gained some experience with white-tailed relocation last year when 35 were moved, fewer than 25 miles, to save them from a highway widening project in Carbon County.

If Wyoming grants Montana’s request, the state wildlife department must get an import permit and a health certificate from the Montana Department of Livestock, for the relocation. A quarantine to check for disease would span two weeks, and at the release site in Carbon County, the animals would spend four to five days in cages, as did the prairie dogs moved for the highway project.

“We did find last year that holding them in those retention cages on the site really aided in keeping them on the site,” Begley said. “By the time we took the cages off, it was already home.”


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