- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service is making new efforts to resolve prairie dog issues on the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeast Wyoming, where ranchers say the rodents are damaging rangeland, a regional Forest Service official said.

Jacqueline Buchanan, deputy forester in the Rocky Mountain Region, told lawmakers Friday that the agency has ramped up its commitment to the issue. She said she recently met with local government officials.

But some lawmakers expressed frustration with what they see as too much talk and no action on controlling prairie dog numbers.

Sen. Gerald Geis, R-Worland, said prairie dogs on federal land have been encroaching on private land for several years, causing problems for ranchers who have grazing livestock.

“You get a bunch of prairie dog towns and there isn’t much left there for anything else to eat,” Geis, who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee, said.

Prairie dogs can damage rangeland used for grazing livestock, but the rodents also are part of the habitat and “we don’t want to lose the population completely,” Buchanan said.

“I think everyone’s in agreement we need to get to a better place, and I don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Buchanan said.

Prairie dogs are important prey for black-footed ferrets, which wildlife managers and conservation groups are trying to encourage after the animal came close to becoming extinct in the 1980s. Prairie dogs also benefit grassland species, including mountain plovers, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks.

“For the Forest Service, we’re always trying to find the balance between interests and uses and multiple use came up and we support sustained multiple use,” Buchanan said. “But we also have the responsibility for the wildlife and maintaining all those other pieces and parts.”

Regarding other forest issues in Wyoming, Buchanan noted that the Forest Service is working more closely with the state and other agencies to improve forest health and resiliency. Those efforts include increasing timber sales, continuing to battle beetle infestations and battling invasive plants, she said.

Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said the mountain pine beetle infestation that killed many trees in the state has slowed but an outbreak of spruce beetles has yet to abate.

“We’re still seeing issues in the Black Hills with an increase in beetle activity and in high elevation five-needle pine,” Crapser said.

In addition, aspen and cottonwood trees around the state are having problems with diseases, he said. And the Emerald Ash Borer bug that devastates ash trees is creeping closer to Wyoming, Crapser said.

“There is an outbreak in Boulder, Colorado, so it’s fairly close,” he said. “Emerald Ash Borer doesn’t impact our backcountry forests … but our city trees, town street trees. About 15 percent of our city canopy coverage in the state is ash.”

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