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Conservationists signal lawsuit over National Grassland prairie dog eradication plan

For Immediate Release January 26, 2021


Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910

John Persell, Western Watersheds Project, (503) 896-6472

Matt Sandler, Rocky Mountain Wild, (303) 579-5162


LARAMIE, Wyo. – Western Watersheds Project and Rocky Mountain Wild today notified the Forest Service of their intent to sue the agency for violations of the Endangered Species Act arising from a recent management plan amendment for the Thunder Basin National Grassland. The amended plan eliminates habitat previously designated for the recovery of black-footed ferrets and instead expands poisoning and shooting of prairie dogs – a keystone species essential to grassland ecosystem health – at the request of the livestock industry and the State of Wyoming.

Critically endangered black-footed ferrets rely almost exclusively on prairie dogs for prey and habitat. Since the arrival of Europeans, humans have eliminated prairie dogs from all but two percent of their natural range in North America. Conservationists point out that the combined threats of poisoning, recreational shooting, and plague outbreaks may lead to complete extirpation of prairie dogs from Thunder Basin, undermining decades of work to facilitate black-footed ferret reintroduction.

“The Forest Service is walking away from its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to recover black-footed ferrets on Thunder Basin,” said John Persell, staff attorney for Western Watersheds Project. “Instead of ensuring the National Grassland can support a self-sustaining reintroduced ferret population, this amendment prioritizes private livestock and allows ferrets’ primary food source to be killed off.”

For nearly two decades, the Forest Service managed a small portion of Thunder Basin National Grassland for future reintroduction of black-footed ferrets, allowing prairie dog colonies to expand naturally. Now, the Forest Service says it will cap prairie dog colonies at 10,000 acres, with loopholes that allow poisoning within colonies even when there are even fewer acres and to manage for just 7,500 acres during drought years.

According to researchers, recovery of black-footed ferrets depends on successful reintroductions in areas with more than 10,600 acres of prairie dog colonies. “This amendment to the Thunder Basin plan is both legally and biologically indefensible,” said Matt Sandler, staff attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “The Forest Service is ignoring science and facts and abdicating its responsibilities to conserve and recover black-footed ferrets to appease business interests and constituents.”

The plan amendment also lifts previous protections for prairie dogs from shooting and poisoning. Many who participate in prairie dog shooting colloquially refer to the gruesome activity as “misting” due to the visible red spray of blood that lingers in the air afterward.

“The Forest Service is promoting the reckless destruction of a designated Sensitive Species in one of its last sanctuaries in Wyoming,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “This plan amendment is nothing less than a policy of intentional ecological destruction, targeting the prairie dogs that are the linchpin of grassland ecosystems.” He continued, “It will put myriad rare wildlife species at risk of extirpation while sabotaging the possibility of black-footed ferret reintroductions in one of the nation’s largest and most promising sites.”

The letter sent to the Forest Service by Western Watersheds Project and Rocky Mountain Wild indicates the groups will file suit pursuant to the Endangered Species Act following a 60-day notice period unless the agency withdraws the unlawful plan amendment.

The Thunder Basin National Grassland encompasses lands that are the traditional lands of the Cheyenne, Crow, and Lakota peoples.


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