Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Conservation: A New Approach for a 21st Century Challenge. (Cases)

Article excerpt


Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)policy is highly contentious. We use the policy sciences to examine how prairie dog conservation became so controversial and suggest ways to increase the prospects for success. We begin by describing the context of prairie dog management--who is involved and how they interact. Stakeholders with diverse values, strategies, sources of power, goals, and demands conflict in their struggle to influence prairie dog management. This conflict stems from the diverse perspectives and interactions of those involved, including ranchers, conservationists, animal rights activists, agency personnel prairie dog shooters, developers, and the general public. We next examine management and policy responses to the problem. The agencies have begun responding, but are largely offering a replay of old ideas, perspectives, and patterns of interaction that contributed to the decline of prairie dogs. The current mixed federal and state agency program is highly fragmented, and likely will meet with limited success. Progress has been plagued by a narrow focus on biological issues, agency inertia, powerful special interest political forces, and negative attitudes. To improve matters, we suggest keeping participation open and including all stakeholders. We further recommend using adaptive, interdisciplinary, and multi-method approaches. Using a "best practices" approach would capitalize and build on past successes. Only by improving conservation practices can we hope to restore the black-tailed prairie dog to levels that permit it to function as a keystone species across the Great Plains.


The ongoing conflict about black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) policy is one of the most contentious wildlife conservation issues in the United States. In 1999, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated the black-tailed prairie dog as a "candidate species" for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). One journalist said "[S]ome worry that any effort to protect prairie dogs will ignite a range war between endangered species advocates and landowners." Broadly speaking, the overall goal of prairie dog management, and the assemblage of associated species (i.e. the prairie dog ecosystem), is to ensure the ecosystem's viability in well-distributed populations in ways that benefit from broad public support (Clark et al. 1989). Achieving this goal is proving very difficult in practice because "Today's West is at war over natural resources, with wildlife the refugees" (Frasier 1999:A8). How did this issue move to the top of controversies? In this paper we examine this and other questions and suggest ways to achieve prairie dog conservation in a more co-operative, practical way.

We begin by describing the context of prairie dog management--who is involved and how they are interacting. Next we examine management and policy responses to the problem. Finally, we offer recommendations to improve matters. We use the policy sciences in our analysis, which requires that we address both the content (e.g., biology) and procedures (e.g., human interaction) involved (Clark et al. 2001; Clark 2002). We have more than 35 years combined experience in prairie dog management. We seek to contribute constructively to prairie dog conservation, lessen the conflict involved in the current effort, and achieve a successful conclusion in the common interest.

Who is involved? What are their perspectives?

For decades prairie dog policy was characterized by stability. Soon after Europeans began settling the Great Plains to ranch and farm, the U.S. Government embarked on a campaign to eradicate prairie dogs. At that time, around 1900, biologists estimated that prairie dogs inhabited 41 million hectares (Mac et al. 1998). Prairie dogs were classified as agricultural pests. Near consensus existed among scientists (most employed by the United States Department of Agriculture), livestock ranchers, and other appointed and elected government officials that these rodents consumed as much as 50 to 75% of the forage available for cattle and must be diligently controlled (Division of the Biological Survey 1902; Merriam 1902; State of Colorado 1915; Jones 2000). …