Prairie dogs won't see reintroduction in Arizona

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Arizona Game & Fish says no to prairie dogs

By Tom Jackson King, Eastern Arizona Courier Managing Editor

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission met Oct. 19, heard three hours of testimony on the issue of reintroducing Black-tailed prairie dogs into Arizona, then voted 3 to 2 against a management plan that called for reintroduction.

The issue of reintroducing Black-tailed prairie dogs into Arizona, where they used to live as part of the short-grass ecosystem, has become a cause celebre of some environmental groups, who assert the rodents are threatened with extinction, even though millions of them may exist in 10 other states. The AGF plan suggested putting the rodents into 7,000 acres of mostly public land in southeastern Arizona.

The National Wildlife Federation two years ago petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list Black-tailed prairie dogs as "threatened," but the agency has not done that. The effort to list them under the Endangered Species Act has alarmed rural residents of Graham, Greenlee and Cochise counties, while some urban residents have supported reintroduction.

This summer the supervisors for Graham, Greenlee, Cochise and Apache counties all voted against bringing back the small rodents, citing them as known carriers of bubonic plague and as diggers of holes that harm livestock.

Joe Carter, a member of the AGF commission, said he voted against the management plan because of its reintroduction component.

"It was clear to me that the Fish and Wildlife Service expected nothing short of reintroduction. I could not clearly understand why reintroducing them to 1 percent of their historic range in Arizona would benefit the environmental system in the state. How does that benefit the entire ecosystem?" Carter said.

Carter said the state's plan was driven by USFWS comments in a Sept. 12, 2000, letter sent to AGF. In it, USFWS Field Supervisor David L. Harlow said, "If reestablishment is not a purpose or goal of the management plan, all other actions proposed in the management plan will have little impact on the conservation and recovery of the species on the ground. Concrete progress toward reestablishment in Arizona may be a factor in any future listing decisions for the species."

"In my view, it (the letter) was the key to why the department focused on the reintroduction component in the final plan," Carter said.

Graham County Supervisor Mark Herrington traveled to Phoenix to testify against the AGF plan. He too criticized the role of USFWS in pushing reintroduction.

"It's typical of how USFW works. They operate in veiled threats. Then they step in with stricter regulations. It's another tool that can be used by environmentalists to stop multiple use of public lands," Herrington said.

Greenlee County Supervisor Donald Stacey applauded the commission's vote against the plan and against reintroduction.

"We're happy with that decision," he said.

Supervisor Dixie Zumwalt seconded Stacey's reaction. "We passed a resolution opposing it," she said.

Greenlee Supervisor Hector Ruedas said keeping out the prairie dogs would help ranchers.

"I think that's the greatest thing that's happened in Arizona in a great time. The little critters are no good to our state. It's positive for rural ranchers. It's hard on those poor people. If it's not here, don't bring it in," he said.

Herrington too cited rural ranching and farming concerns in his decision to speak against the plan.

"It was the right thing to do (to vote no). We simply don't want prairie dogs reintroduced. We opposed the plan because of the reintroduction of prairie dogs for which we can find no good reason to have them. I asked why are we even thinking of this now when AGF is involved in an eradication program for the Gunnison's prairie dogs in Navajo County?" he said.

"Once these prairie dogs get established, it's hard to get rid of them. For farming, it's devastating. It's hard on ranching. We've lived in drought conditions for the last few years and things are hard enough," Herrington said.

Carter said that the AGF commission has helped prairie dogs by voting to establish a hunting season rather than allow year-round hunting on public land, a season that prevents hunting during the spring-to-summer birthing season.

"There is some real concern about the science and population levels and whether it warrants listing at all. I think those who petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species are more of a feel-good thing that you've done something for the environment rather than that you've done something useful," he said.

Carter said AGF will not do any more reintroduction planning, but it will continue to work with the other 10 states that are studying conservation of the Black-tailed prairie dog.

Voting against the plan and reintroduction were commissioners Carter, Dennis Manning and Sue Chilton.

Voting in favor of reintroduction were commissioners Hays Gilstrap and Mike Golightly.
 

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