State offers prairie dog management plan

Public Comment Deadline is June 25, 2004: To view the plan and to submit comments on the GF&P Web site, go to and click on "What's New."

May 28, 2004
By Steve Miller, West River Editor
[email protected] or 605-394-8417
Rapid City Journal
Rapid City, South Dakota
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The state of South Dakota has drafted a prairie dog management plan that would establish buffer zones aimed at preventing prairie dogs on federal land from encroaching onto adjacent private land.

The plan would also establish an emergency interim process to help private landowners next to federal lands control prairie dogs until the U.S. Forest Service can begin action in the buffer zones on federal lands, possibly next year.

The plan, which state officials hope to finalize by early July, drew criticism both from grazing interests who say it doesn't do enough to control prairie dogs and from wildlife advocates who say the buffer zones would hurt recovery efforts for black-footed ferrets.

State Agriculture and Game, Fish & Parks Department officials developed the plan to try to ward off listing of prairie dogs as a federal threatened species and to help ranchers whose land is being overrun by prairie dogs from nearby federal land in Conata Basin on the Fort Pierre National Grassland and from Buffalo Gap National Grassland in Fall River County.

The plan includes results of a new prairie dog population survey showing that the state has more than 400,000 acres occupied by prairie dogs -- 215,146 acres on tribal lands and 192,337 acres on non-tribal land. The state's goal is 168,000 acres of nontribal land.

The goal was determined as part of an 11-state prairie dog group working to keep the prairie dog off the threatened species list.

The South Dakota plan calls for a half-mile buffer zone on federal lands to prevent prairie dogs from encroaching onto adjacent private land.

A ruling by a top Bush administration official earlier this month instructed the U.S. Forest Service to cooperate with state and local officials to prevent encroachment onto private land.

Forest Service officials said earlier this month that they would consider poisoning prairie dogs in the buffer zones but would first have to conduct an environmental impact statement, which could take a year.

In response, the South Dakota plan calls for interim, emergency measures this year to help private landowners control prairie dogs coming from adjacent federal lands.

Details of the emergency measures are still being worked out, according to George Vandel, chief wildlife biologist with the state GF&P.

Current policy allows the state to pay for prairie dog poisoning on private land on a one-time basis. The new plan likely will allow an exemption for follow-up treatment for landowners in emergency situations, such as those in Conata Basin, Vandel said.

Rancher Mark DeVries of Belvidere said the half-mile buffer zones would be inadequate to prevent encroachment onto private land from the 10,000-plus-acre colonies on federal land.

He said the half-mile buffer zones could work to prevent encroachment from smaller prairie dog colonies, such as those on private land.

DeVries, chairman of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association's wildlife management committee, was among members of a working group that provided suggestions for the state plan. The group included representatives of cattle and ag groups, as well as wildlife and conservation groups.

Fall River County State's Attorney Lance Russell, a spokesman for a loose coalition of grazing groups and West River counties, criticized the plan for not being specific enough about how prairie dogs will be controlled.

Russell said the new management plan for the national grasslands, which was affirmed after final appeals this spring, defers to the state plan for direction on prairie dog control. "That's the reason we should have specific language in the (state) plan," Russell said Thursday.

"It needs to be written into this plan that poisoning will be allowed," Russell said. "It dances around it. It doesn't actually say that."

Russell also said the state plan doesn't call for control in the buffer zones until prairie dogs begin to encroach onto private land. "They're waiting until the problem has already begun," he said.

The interim emergency control efforts, although well-intentioned, likely will be inadequate, Russell said. Control will be done only on private land while prairie dogs continue to proliferate on federal land across the fence. "You're essentially going to have them back overnight," he said.

The state plan overall drew a better review from Sterling Miller, a senior wildlife biologist for the National Wildlife Federation. However, Miller also blasted the buffer zones - but for different reasons.

"The National Wildlife Federation absolutely cannot support a half-mile buffer zone," Miller said Thursday. A half-mile buffer would cripple black-footed ferret recovery efforts, such as those in Conata Basin, he said. Prairie dogs are considered essential to the survival of black-footed ferrets, as well as other species.

It was a petition from the National Wildlife Federation that prompted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service four years ago to find that the prairie dog deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Miller hinted that the wildlife federation might take legal action if the South Dakota plan takes effect.

Vandel acknowledged that the half-mile buffer zone has the potential to drop the number of nontribal prairie dog acres to 158,000, [which would be] 10,000 acres under the goal. But he suggested the buffer zone wouldn't be needed along the entire border of federal-private land. He said the state would monitor prairie dog populations every three years.

Pete Gober, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Pierre, said he hadn't had time to study the new plan in detail and couldn't say whether the service supports the plan's goals.

However, when told the plan stated the half-mile buffer could drop the nontribal acres below the state's goal, he said, "They might want to think carefully about that."

Gober said the best part of the plan is the new prairie dog census information.

Governor Mike Rounds said he was pleased with progress on the plan.

Rounds also said he was asking Interior Secretary Gale Norton to drop the prairie dog as a candidate from the threatened species list.

Earlier this week, Interior Department officials told Senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D., that they would decide by August whether to drop the prairie dog from the candidate list.

The state will take comments on its prairie dog plan through June 25. To view the plan and to submit comments on the GF&P Web site, go to and click on "What's New."