Washington, D.C.– Scientists, spiritual leaders, and conservation groups filed suit in federal court over the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) refusal to conduct a full review over whether to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog, found in the southwest, under the Endangered Species Act. The Service issued a negative petition finding in early February 2006 and evidence surfaced recently that agency biologists were ordered to reverse a positive petition finding by Bush appointee Julie MacDonald just two weeks earlier. MacDonald, a civil engineer without biological training, is the deputy assistant Interior Secretary in charge of the Service.
An October 30 Washington Post story exposed MacDonald’s role in reversing endangered species decisions, and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the incoming House Resources Committee chairman, has announced there will be congressional investigations into the matter. Scientists joining onto today’s lawsuit were especially concerned that agency biologists’ decisions were be overruled by higher ups.
“The Gunnison’s prairie dog is clearly in decline across its range, and is in real trouble. On top of threats from plague, extermination efforts, and habitat destruction, this prairie dog now faces danger from new sources: junk science and political interference,” stated Bob Luce, a retired Arizona Game and Fish official who served as Interstate Prairie Dog Team Coordinator for four years.
The negative petition finding was a surprise to scientists and conservationists alike, given the high degree of imperilment of the Gunnison’s prairie dog. The reason for the surprise is now clear: Service emails from January show that the species was supposed to have been provided with a positive finding, but Julie MacDonald ordered that the finding be reversed. One email from the Service’s Chris Nolin, dated January 19, states, “Per Julie please make the pd [prairie dog] finding negative.” The negative finding was published on February 7.
“The Gunnison’s prairie dog was on track to clear the first hurdle for endangered species protection, but with the stroke of Julie MacDonald’s pen, was denied the chance at protection,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of Forest Guardians. Rosmarino continued, “We’re pressing forward for Endangered Species Act listing, given the law’s successful record of preventing extinction and to contest illegal interference in this petition finding.”
Evidence of political interference in determinations for other species, including the White-tailed prairie dog, Gunnison sage-grouse, Mountain plover, Greater sage-grouse, California tiger salamander, roundtail chub, Mexican garter snake, and a Mariana Islands plant, demonstrate a Bush administration pattern of violating the Endangered Species Act, which requires that listing decisions be based on solely biological factors. Last month, San Miguel County, CO and a coalition of conservation groups challenged the Service’s denial of protection for the Gunnison sage-grouse, and Forest Guardians and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance challenged the Service’s withdrawal of a listing proposal for the Mountain plover.
“The Gunnison’s prairie dog desperately needs federal protection if it is to be spared from extinction. With the devastating impact of exotic plague, habitat destruction, and rampant shooting and poisoning, this species does not have the luxury of time,” stated Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, who has pioneered research over the past two decades demonstrating that the Gunnison’s prairie dogs have the most sophisticated communication system yet documented among non-human animals.
“Field biologists and good science have been rolled repeatedly by Bush anti-conservation politics from DC,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Tucson-based ecologist with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and formerly with BLM. “Gunnison’s prairie dogs need Endangered Species Act protection now so they can survive. Meddling Julie MacDonald should be removed from Interior.”
Forest Guardians and a broad coalition of 73 co-petitioners, including private landowners, realtors, homebuilders, military officers, scientists, religious organizations, conservation and animal protection groups, submitted the petition to protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act to the Service in February 2004. The wide variety of constituents backing federal protection for the species reflects its high degree of imperilment, broad popularity among wildlife watchers, and the prairie dog’s ecological importance in natural habitats. The Service has acknowledged that Gunnison’s prairie dogs have declined by 97% across their four-state range in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah due to historic and current poisoning and shooting, sylvatic plague, and habitat destruction.
Unique to North America, all five species of prairie dogs have been listed (Utah and Mexican prairie dogs) or petitioned for listing (Gunnison’s, White-tailed, and Black-tailed) under the Endangered Species Act. All five species are biologically imperiled and merit federal protection.
Prairie dogs are keystone species, which play an especially important role in their ecosystems by creating habitat and providing a prey base for a wide variety of predators. More than 140 wildlife species benefit from prairie dogs. For example, black-footed ferrets are among the most endangered mammals on earth, and that imperiled status is traced directly to prairie dog declines. Ferrets cannot survive in the wild outside of prairie dog towns and over 90% of their diet is prairie dogs. Protection for prairie dogs can fulfill the Endangered Species Act’s stated purpose of safeguarding ecosystems.
Few species are obtaining positive petition findings at present under the George W. Bush administration, which has listed fewer species under the Endangered Species Act than any other administration since the law’s passage in 1973. Only 10 species per year have been listed under Bush, and all of those listings have been ordered by the courts. In contrast, the Clinton administration listed 65 species per year and the George H. W. Bush administration listed an average of 59 species every year. Meanwhile, nearly 300 species languish on the candidate list without federal protection, and thousands more – including the Gunnison’s prairie dog – are not even in the queue for federal protection.
The scientists, religious, and conservation groups that are plaintiffs are biologists Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff, Dr. Ana Davidson, Dr. David Lightfoot, and Jennifer Verdolin, M.S., Rev. Jacqueline Ziegler, Jews Of The Earth, Forest Guardians, Center for Native Ecosystems, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Habitat Harmony, Inc., Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Wildlands Conservation Alliance, and Bob Luce, the former coordinator of the Interstate Prairie Dog Team.
For a copy of the complaint, Service emails showing evidence of political interference, and other background documents, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 719-643-5561.