Prairie dogs: Forest Service management plan to reopen
Prairie dog management across Wyoming, and particularly in the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, provides constant concern for landowners and federal lands managers alike.
In a recent meeting between landowners, Forest Service and the Weed and Pest Control Districts in Campbell, Converse and Weston counties, the parties reviewed current prairie dog numbers, recent control efforts, as well as documented new, emerging colonies encroaching onto private property.
Slade Franklin, Weed and Pest coordinator with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, noted that there are a number of parties from both sides of the fence that are interested in prairie dog management on the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Some of those groups would rather not see the prairie dog managed as a pest.
“We are still talking about the same issues we have been discussing the last two years,” says Franklin, “but with the help of the Governor’s office we are slowly starting to see the Forest Service reconsider their management program in relation to the local landowners, Weed and Pest and County Commissioner concerns. That said we still are a long way off from solving the problem.”
“Things are progressing very well,” adds Converse County Weed and Pest District Supervisor Cheryl Schwartzkopf. “The Forest Service and landowners have all been great to work with. We are moving forward and going to treat some more this year.”
“Last year, we did get to do some control work, and this year, we’ll get to do some more,” comments Weston County Weed and Pest District Supervisor Hale Redding. “I think we are moving in a positive direction, but there are more things that we can do still.”
The Thunder Basin National Grassland Prairie Dog Management Strategy provides management options for prairie dogs in each of four categories.
“The goal of the plan is to grow prairie dog numbers within each of the four categories,” explains Rebekah Fitzgerald, natural resources policy analyst with Governor Matt Mead’s office. “Category one and two are the most important categories, with categories three and four serving to supplement the populations of categories one and two.”
The plan sets the goal of reaching 18,000 occupied prairie dog acres within category one.
“They are trying to grow numbers for species diversity,” adds Fitzgerald. “The problem that we really have is that there is not enough flexibility in treating prairie dogs who are encroaching on private lands.”
“We have state lands parcels and private lands within the category one, specifically, and also in category two,” she continues. “We can’t manage those prairie dogs until that 18,000 acres of prairie dogs is reached.”
At the same time, Fitzgerald also explains that the historical high is 14,360 occupied acres of prairie dogs.
“We see it as problematic that we have a historical high that is not even as high as the management trigger number,” Fitzgerald adds.
In addressing the problems with the plan, Fitzgerald notes that the Forest Service has agreed to reopen the document for comments and review through the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process.
“The Forest Service hasn’t endorsed a specific plan moving forward, but they have agreed to reopen the plan and look at it,” says Fitzgerald.
Included in the changes being sought are additional treatment options.
“We would like to be able to treat prairie dogs within a quarter-mile buffer on the Forest Service lands,” she explains. “We would also like to see a full suite of treatment options, from additional poisons to being able to shoot and translocate animals.”
The only treatment option that has been allowed thus far is translocation, with the exception of within one mile of residences to protect human health and safety, where poisoning is allowed to take place.
“The translocation piece has been a fairly emotional process for some,” comments Fitzgerald. “We don’t want to take translocations away, but to protect landowners and state interests, we want to be able to fully treat within the buffer zone.”
“Right now, we only have one lethal option for control, and there are other products that work better,” adds Redding. “We’d like to see a more integrated program where we have more options for control, both lethal and non-lethal.”
Quade Schmelzle, Campbell County Weed and Pest district supervisor, comments, “We need a broader spectrum of rodenticides and ways to control prairie dogs. Integrated pest management is important in addressing any issue.”
The scoping document to reopen the plan is anticipated to be out by the end of July. At that point, the official National Environmental Policy Act process will begin.
In moving forward with the plan, Fitzgerald says, “When the NEPA process starts, that will allow people to interact through cooperating agency status.”
Working collaboratively with a wide group of interested parties is important, she notes.
“We have worked with environmental groups in this process and had those conversations as much as we did with landowners,” Fitzgerald comments. “We emphasize that it is very important that the process moving forward is a collaborative process.”