- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - An environmental group filed a lawsuit this month over the federal government’s decision not to extend protections for a prairie dog found in four Southwestern states.

Threats to the Gunnison’s prairie dog won’t cause the animal to become extinct soon or in the foreseeable future, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. Those threats include agriculture, grazing, urbanization and invasive species.

WildEarth Guardians, which sued Fish and Wildlife in U.S. District Court in Arizona, said the agency is ignoring dramatic declines in the range and population of the animals, and it is discounting widespread threats.

The agency has a policy not to comment on pending litigation.

The prairie dogs make their homes in grasslands and intermountain valleys of northern Arizona, southwestern and south-central Colorado, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.

While outbreaks of plague have nearly decimated some colonies, federal officials say the populations are quick to rebound and are stable. Recreational shooting also has reduced populations, but officials say those impacts aren’t widespread in the prairie dogs’ 36,000-square-mile range.

WildEarth Guardians and dozens of other organizations and individuals petitioned Fish and Wildlife in 2004 to list the prairie dogs as endangered or threatened. The agency determined the listing wasn’t warranted, but a smaller group that included WildEarth Guardians challenged the finding.

Fish and Wildlife later found that populations in parts of Colorado and New Mexico that are wetter and higher in elevations than prairie land were eligible for protection, primarily because of the effects of sylvatic plague, a flea-borne bacterial disease. The U.S. District Court in Arizona said the agency could not divide the species and ordered a new review.

Arizona, New Mexico and Utah consider the prairie dogs a species of greatest conservation need, but that designation doesn’t provide any regulatory protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service said states actively are managing prairie-dog populations through agreements and strategies.

Final or draft resource-management plans covering U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Utah and New Mexico include conservation measures to minimize the impacts of oil and gas activities on the prairie dogs, but those in Colorado and Arizona don’t specifically mention the animals.

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