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Feds Remove Protections for Black-footed Ferrets' Key Food Supply

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A new management plan released by the U.S. Forest Service would expand the shooting and poisoning of native prairie dogs, a critical food source for the endangered black-footed ferret. (Needpix)
A new management plan released by the U.S. Forest Service would expand the shooting and poisoning of native prairie dogs, a critical food source for the endangered black-footed ferret. (Needpix)
December 2, 2020

LARAMIE, Wyo. - The U.S. Forest Service will allow prairie dogs to be eradicated in what had been a protected section of the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming. Conservation groups say that makes it almost impossible for the endangered black-footed ferret to recover in the U.S.

Some 95% of the prairie dog's historic range has been lost since the 1800s - and today, only 350 endangered ferrets remain in the wild.

Chamois Andersen, senior representative of the Rockies & Plains program at Defenders of Wildlife, said allowing prairie dogs - the ferrets' primary food source - to be shot or poisoned would have profound negative effects across the prairie.

"If we lose the prairie dog and if we lose the black-footed ferret, I always attribute it to, like, a rug," said Andersen. "And you start pulling at a loose thread and then, it quickly starts to unravel. So, it's really about the health of the ecosystem for our prairie grasslands and plains that we keep these species thriving."

The Forest Service decision is set to be published in the Federal Register today, and would remove protections from 10% of Thunder Basin that had been set aside to aid ferret recovery by protecting prairie dogs.

The agency says the move will add more vegetation for livestock grazing on public lands, citing its charge to manage lands for multiple uses.

Anderson said she believes the Forest Service decision prioritizes private beef production, and violates the agency's mandate to maintain wildlife on public lands. She added it doesn't have to be one or the other, noting that prairie dogs and ferrets can coexist with cattle, as they have historically with bison.

"Really, the ranchers don't see it as being a healthy component to the grasslands. They see them as an agricultural pest, competing for grass with their cattle," said Andersen. "They have cultural ties to these natural grasslands, but it's also about the economics, how much grass they can have for their cattle."

Critics of the decision warn that lifting protections for black-tailed prairie dogs, considered to be a keystone species, will produce a domino effect across the grassland ecosystem. In addition to ferrets, burrowing owls, mountain plovers and swift foxes also rely on the prairie dog for food and shelter.

Disclosure: Defenders of Wildlife contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Energy Policy, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY