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June 14, 2004
Texas Plans to Protect Black-Tailed Prairie Dog
LUBBOCK, Texas — A working group committee of representatives from ranching and farming organizations, environmental groups, state and federal biologists, private landowners and others has completed a Texas plan to conserve the black-tailed prairie dog and its grassland habitat. The species is currently a candidate for possible listing as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The management plan created by the Texas Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Working Group sets a goal to have 293,129 acres of occupied prairie dog habitat in Texas by 2011. This represents one percent of the original available habitat in Texas as estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Preliminary estimates indicate there is currently 150,000 to 170,000 acres of occupied prairie dog habitat in the state, with a final inventory to be completed this summer. This acreage figure is based on aerial photo interpretation and subsequent ground truthing from county roads.
"Part of the good news in Texas is we have more than twice the occupied prairie dog habitat than was originally thought, which was around 68,000 acres based on a 1991 study," said Derrick Holdstock, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s black-tailed prairie dog program coordinator.
"It’s also important to note that regardless of the final decision on whether to list the prairie dog as threatened, the State of Texas and our partners in the working group are committed to implementing this management plan," Holdstock said. "It really doesn’t matter whether it is on or off the list in terms of the Texas plan."
Work to develop the Texas Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation and Management Plan began in 1999 following petitions by environmental groups for the USFWS to list the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened. The Texas working group is part of a multi-state effort to restore the species.
The Texas plan has six goals: (1) Determine the current population size of black-tailed prairie dogs in Texas and establish a long-term monitoring program, (2) Develop and implement an effective education and outreach program, (3) Develop management options and guidelines that conserve prairie dogs at long-term sustainable levels, (4) Review and make recommendations for regulatory changes in the status of black-tailed prairie dogs, (5) Identify research needs and establish a research program that facilitates long-term viability of black-tailed prairie dogs in Texas, and (6) Implement the plan.
"We don’t want to prevent listing the prairie dog as threatened," said Roger Haldenby of Plains Cotton Growers, a working group member. "We want to preclude the need to list the species by taking steps to make sure it remains part of the landscape and ecology of the plains."
The 25-member working group represents diverse stakeholders, from environmental groups like the Texas Panhandle Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy to agriculture interests like the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau. (See plan for complete list.)
Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are important for healthy grassland ecosystems. Their burrows and surrounding low-cut vegetation provide habitat for a variety of other species, including western burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and the endangered black-footed ferret (currently extinct in Texas). Basic prairie dog biology and life history is on the TPWD Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/mammals/prairie.htm).
In 1905, early explorer Vernon Bailey estimated there were 800 million prairie dogs covering 57 million acres in Texas. Since then, prairie dog numbers have been reduced by a variety of factors. Threats to prairie dogs that are currently being evaluated include conversion of habitat to other uses, introduction of sylvatic plague, unregulated poisoning and trapping, recreational shooting; lack of state and federal regulations to conserve the species; and over-use for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.
Besides the overall occupied habitat goal, the Texas working group has agreed to recommend a goal advanced by the interstate prairie dog conservation team. This would establish at least one prairie dog complex greater than 5,000 acres in Texas, and with at least 10 percent of the occupied acres in complexes greater than 1,000 acres. A complex is defined as a group of prairie dog colonies or towns no more than 4.3 miles apart.
"We probably already have that," said Holdstock, referring to the desired number and size of complexes in Texas. "What we need is to increase our total occupied acreage."
The management plan does not restrict landowners from controlling prairie dogs, but it does offer incentives to restore prairie dogs and the grasslands upon which they and other species rely. The plan lists various government and nonprofit programs that offer financial grants, free land management advice and other technical assistance.
Such incentives are getting a friendlier reception these days. Holdstock says years of work by the Texas working group have coincided with a new way of thinking about prairie dogs that is developing among ranchers and farmers.
L.H.Webb owns and operates the 11,000-acre Seven Cross Ranch in Gray and Wheeler counties in the eastern Panhandle. He’s also a member of the Texas working group.
"The day I was asked to serve on this working group, a prairie dog ran across the road about two miles from the nearest colony," Webb said. "Just like that dog was out of his area, I was out of mine. I was raised to always fight the prairie dog. But I’ve learned they can be an asset to a ranch, either through nature tourism or limited recreational hunting. We don’t have to try to eradicate them to win on this deal, but that’s not the traditional ranch way of thinking."
Prairie dogs may even benefit cattle ranching operations in some cases.
"Several studies show that when prairie dogs graze perennial grass, they keep it at an earlier growth stage with higher nutrient content," Holdstock said. "Typically, in summer, if grasses are not grazed, they’ll get to a certain height and will cure and then the nutrient content goes down. With prairie dogs keeping the grass lower, you get that constant growth stage, so cattle don’t have to eat as much to get the same nutrients. This requires the right balance, because if you have too many prairie dogs or cattle, you’re reducing the quantity of forage more than adding to its quality. We’re recommending studies to look at the effects of prairie dog colonies on cattle ranching, specifically on weight gains and how that translates to dollar signs."
A related side-issue involving prairie dogs is plague. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, was detected this spring in fleas from wild prairie dogs in Dallam County in the Texas Panhandle. This disease was originally introduced into the U.S. around 1900 in San Francisco and found its way to the Texas Panhandle around 1946. It breaks out and recedes occasionally in local areas, but has never caused large-scale problems for people in Texas. TPWD works on the wildlife aspects of plague outbreaks, partnering with the Texas Department of Health, which handles the human health aspects. A TDH news release about recent plague occurrences is online (http://www.tdh.state.tx.us/news/b%5Fnew517.htm).
Connected with rebuilding prairie dog colonies is the idea of translocating dogs from one area to another. Like the other elements of the Texas plan, such translocation would be done in voluntary cooperation with private landowners in ways that respect property rights and livelihoods.
"Translocation is happening right now," Holdstock said, "although it’s hampered a bit by FDA monkeypox restrictions. At least two relocators in Lubbock have applied for and received case-by-case exemptions from the FDA restrictions. Basically, this is accepting prairie dogs from landowners who have too many and taking them to those who don’t have any or want more."
"Prairie dogs can be a source of income for a landowner, whether it be nature tourism or varmint hunting. We have some ranchers who lease land for prairie dog hunting, charging a small daily fee. This hunting is very sustainable, since prairie dogs get gun shy very quickly. There is no data out there that say any good size colony 15-to-20 acres or larger has ever been shot out. Landowners that hunt prairie dogs are protective of their colonies, they are a source of income."
Prairie dogs are currently a nongame species in Texas, with no closed hunting season or daily bag limit restrictions, although a valid hunting license is required.
Anyone can see the Texas Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation and Management Plan on the working group Web site (http://www.texasprairiedog.org/). Comments about the plan or questions about prairie dogs in Texas should go to Holdstock at firstname.lastname@example.org, (806) 742-2800 or Heather Whitlaw at email@example.com, (806) 742-6888, ext 242.
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