Academic journal article Environmental Law

The National Grassland and Disappearing Biodiversity: Can the Prairie Dog Save Us from an Ecological Desert?

Academic journal article Environmental Law

The National Grassland and Disappearing Biodiversity: Can the Prairie Dog Save Us from an Ecological Desert?

Article excerpt


   The sun, moon and stars would have disappeared long ago had they been
   within the reach of predatory human hands.

      --Havelock Ellis

In 1492 the American prairie was a thriving ecosystem that encompassed one-third of the North American continent.(1) Buffalo roamed in herds that stretched to the horizon, and the prairie dog lived in "towns" covering over 100 million acres of the Great Plains stretching from Canada to Mexico on the eastern side of the Rockies.(2) Five hundred years of European occupation have taken their toll on the grassland ecosystem. The bison are all but gone from the landscape, and many species may not be far behind. As with other ecosystems invaded by human occupation, we have destroyed much of the original fabric before realizing what we have done. Human understanding of the complexity of some of our ecosystems has progressed greatly in the last fifty years. Yet the subtle nature of certain systems prevents the level of understanding needed to stimulate the public outcry that could stop the destruction. It is hard to see the damage done to the prairies of the American West without paying attention to detail. Like fragile wetlands, once considered annoying swamps that should be drained, the prairies appear to the casual observer to be doing fine--one can still look out and see the rolling grasslands. But gone are many of the original occupants as the plains have been carved up by humans eager to exploit them. Bison were hunted to near extinction and cows replaced them, causing stress upon native grasses, beating streams into washed-out gullies, and displacing many other species from their traditional homes.(3)

During the last year, the grassland ecosystem has finally, come to the attention of the general public, carried there by its posterchild, the prairie dog. The prairie dog, considered by many an important indicator of prairie ecosystem health, has graced the cover of National Geographic and has been the subject of numerous news stories.(4) In July 1998 the National Wildlife Federation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the prairie dog a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).(5) These developments may lead to both a better understanding of the overall prairie ecosystem and better management of the ecosystem by federal agencies.

One opportunity for better management exists with the United States Forest Service (Forest Service). In mid-1997 the Forest Service announced its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (Grasslands EIS Notice) as part of its effort to update the management plans of three national forests, which encompass eight National Grasslands.(6) These eight public grasslands make up a significant part of the remaining prairie ecosystem, and, therefore, the Forest Service plan may determine the destiny of this once great national treasure. The Grasslands EIS Notice outlines the preparation, over an eighteen-month period, of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).(7) This planning process is an excellent time to reflect on past uses of these public lands and to examine the adequacy of present management tools available for preserving what is left of the natural ecosystem, in light of new scientific information about the grassland ecosystem.

This Comment argues that the prairie dog should emerge as a focal point in discussing the viability of the prairie ecosystem because of its interconnectedness with most of the naturally occurring species of the plains. The prairie dog's role is similar to that of coral in aquatic systems and is just as necessary to the continued survival of many species living on the grasslands.(8) In Part II, this Comment traces the history of the prairie ecosystem and discusses some of the management attitudes and practices employed by the government. Part III discusses the critical role the blacktailed prairie dog plays in the grassland habitat and why it should be considered more than a mere "varmint" whose only use is to be shot at for recreation or exterminated to make way for more livestock grazing. …

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