Forest Service begins scoping on prairie dog plan amendment
Douglas – With concern from landowners and the state of Wyoming over management of black-tailed prairie dogs in the Thunder Basin National Grasslands (TBNG), the Forest Service recently opened the TBNG management plan for an amendment.
“There is a varied history of management in the TBNG,” said Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest District Ranger Tom Whitson, who also noted that the amendment seeks to make changes to enhance the ability of the Forest Service to manage prairie dogs and protect landowners.
Whitson described the new amendment and heard public comment during a Nov. 18 meeting, held in Douglas.
Management of prairie dogs in the TBNG has a varied history.
“In 1999, the Forest Service prohibited the poisoning of prairie dogs on National Forest system lands across the West in response to the petition for listing of black-tailed prairie dogs,” Whitson explained.
The management plan for the TBNG was revised in 2001 to include use of poison to manage those prairie dogs that might pose a threat to health and human safety or to prevent damage to infrastructure.
“In the 2001 plan, the management objective was set at 35,000 acres,” he continued. “In the 2009 plan, the objective is 26,000 acres, and the number of acres of ferret reintroduction were set at 52,190 acres.”
In 2001, the first recorded plague outbreak occurred, and prairie dog acres dropped from 21,000 acres to 4,300 acres. A second plague in 2007 reduced prairie dog inhabited lands to an all-time low of 3,200 acres.
“In 2005-06, we started working with a group called the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association,” Whitson noted. “In 2006-09, we began the process of again revising the management plan for prairie dogs in the TBNG.”
After visiting with Governor Matt Mead during October 2012, Whitson said, “We talked about prairie dog management, and we discussed the potential proposal for amendment.”
In April 2013, Whitson added that the forest service received a formal request from Mead to amend the management plan.
The formal request included an established buffer of one-quarter mile around all private and state lands in categories one and two, modification of management tools to include anticoagulants in the buffer area and analysis of the triggers and decision trees currently utilized.
The 2013 plan amendment will focus on amendments to management of prairie dogs classified as category one or category two.
“In the 2009 amendment, the Forest Service also recognized that there were mistakes,” Whitson said. “There were typos and other mistakes that need to be fixed.”
The current proposed amendment also reduces the number of category one managed acres by almost 8,000 acres and the number of category two managed acres by about 13,800 acres.
With much concern over prairie dog management, ranchers, land managers and other interested citizens voiced their concerns over the plan.
Frank Eathorne, a rancher and member of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association, questioned the use of acres for management, rather than population estimates.
“Acres are our way of measuring occupied habitats,” Whitson explained.
Tim Byer, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, added, “Historically, we’ve used acres because it is a stationary target for us to track. Populations can vary between months.”
While Eathorne acknowledged acreage may be easier to calculate, he added that because population densities can also fluctuate, just measuring acres doesn’t allow managers to determine how many black-footed ferrets can be supported on those acres.
Additionally, the concept of a control colony was also brought to light.
“We are still going to have control colonies for human health and safety,” Whitson explained. “We are analyzing whether we need to have control colonies.”
Whitson also responded to audience questions about management of prairie dogs in sage grouse core areas and noted that the Forest Service will manage for both species.
The ability of the Forest Service to manage prairie dogs outlined in the management plan decided on was also a concern.
“In the past, one of the main complaints of ranchers in the TBNG is that the Forest Service has a policy, record of decision and National Environmental Policy Act documents, but they don’t seem to follow them,” said Converse County Commissioner Major Brown of his constituent’s concerns.
“They are concerned as to whether the Forest Service is going to stick to this new policy or jump back and forth to what fits their fancy,” Brown added.
Meeting attendees also expressed concern for lack of other alternatives, and they questioned whether the document would allow other options to incorporate their concerns.
“We don’t have any preconceived ideas about where this will all fall out. We are trying to find middle ground,” Whitson said. “We will have as many alternatives as the scope of comments requires.”
He further explained that because comments received from the public drive the formation of alternatives, it is necessary for concerned citizens to provide written input.
“We are not starting from scratch, and we want to bring something forward that answers the concerns of the folks out in the land,” he continued.
“We really stress the written comments,” Whitson said. “We must receive written comments, so we can consider those suggestions in our amendment.”
The written comment period ends on Jan. 3, 2014.
“Category one is an area large enough to sustain a viable population of prairie dogs which could potentially support a ferret reintroduction,” Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest District Ranger Tom Whitson explained. “Category two are those prairie dogs managed for all of the associated species to promote more ecological diversity.”
Current conditions show that category one currently includes 10,500 acres, with an objective of 18,000 acres. Category three is the only category that exceeds the objective number of acres.
“Currently, we are actively implementing those management tools implemented in 2009,” Whitson said.
Thunder Basin National Grasslands
The Thunder Basin National Grassland (TBNG), located in the northeast corner of Wyoming, encompasses 533,000 acres of National Forest system lands. The area is approximately 1.8 million acres in total.
“The Forest Service manages the bulk of the grazing through three grazing associations within that 1.8 million acres,” Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest District Ranger Tom Whitson said.
Within that land, Whitson marked a diverse range of plant and animal species. Of those species, the black-tailed prairie dog is considered a keystone species.
“The prairie dogs provide habitat for the mountain plover, burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, swift fox and a variety of other species,” Whitson continued.
Within the TBNG, prairie dogs occupy approximately three percent of Forest Service lands.