Then and Now
The five species of prairie dogs, once common across the central and western grasslands of North America, were likely more than one billion strong and their colonies covered roughly 100 million acres. Single colonies were often tens of miles long. The widespread destruction of prairie dog colonies and the arrival of exotic diseases in the 1900s reduced prairie dogs by more than 95 percent. Today they occupy roughly 2-3 million acres of grasslands in relatively small colonies scattered across 11 states in the U.S., two Mexican states, and one Canadian province.
Key Recovery Milestones
In 1998, conservation organizations petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species. Due to a lack of resources, FWS instead placed prairie dogs on the “candidate list” to await a final decision.
To avoid a threatened listing, some states began taking measures to conserve black-tailed prairie dog populations, such as banning shooting prairie dogs on federal lands. Federal agencies also banned poisoning prairie dogs on federal lands and prairie dog colonies began to expand once more.
In August 2004, however, FWS bowed to political pressure and removed prairie dogs from the “candidate” list. The very next day, the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to begin mass poisoning of prairie dogs on national grasslands in South Dakota and Nebraska. Since then, other states have also dramatically curtailed their conservation programs, once again jeopardizing prairie dog recovery.