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Prairie dogs, ferrets evaluated in management plan

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Thunder Basin National Grasslands – According to Frank Eathorne, who grazes cattle on private land adjoining the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming, the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the area, which includes prairie dog population and black-footed ferret reintroduction objectives, is not good news for ranchers who graze livestock.
    According to the plan’s abstract, “This strategy relies on using the full spectrum of management tools needed to maintain viable populations of prairie dogs and to support reintroduction of the endangered black-footed ferret.”
    The Thunder Basin National Grassland contains approximately 553,000 acres of Forest Service lands, intermingled with over one million acres of state and private lands.
    “They expanded in this final EIS the amount of prairie dogs they want to have on the grasslands,” says Eathorne, but he does add that an amendment to the document allows additional limited rodenticide control on the grassland, though as an option secondary to non-lethal control.
    Appendix C of the document changes regulations from “prohibit the use of rodenticides (grain baits)” to “limit the use of rodenticides” and the list of acceptable scenarios was also expanded to include prairie dog colonies that are expanding on to neighboring private lands where they are not wanted and colonies outside the plan’s Categories 1, 2, 3, and 4 (as identified in strategy) if the Forest Service determines they are not needed for habitat for prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets or other associated species.
    “We’re concerned about them controlling the spread of prairie dogs, and that’s the whole reason for the amendment because the current plan doesn’t allow lethal control except in a select few circumstances, like dams, cemeteries and threat to human health,” explains Eathorne.
    “Their preferred non-lethal method is prescribed grazing, which means we’re supposed to get our cows to not graze within a half mile of the boundary between private and federal lands,” explains Eathorne. “We’re supposed to leave the ungrazed area as a barrier to stop prairie dogs, and I’m pretty skeptical about that.”
    Furthermore, he says after the prescribed grazing is tried it’s not certain how long it will take the Forest Service to admit it’s not working and go to lethal control.
    “We’re pushing for them to use more lethal control because it’s needed and justified,” adds Eathorne. “Not everywhere, but there are cases and areas where control is needed.”
    Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association Chairperson Betty Pellatz says the ability to poison select prairie dog colonies would be helpful to ranchers, and there are quite a few colonies that would remain to replace them in other areas of the grassland.
    The Forest Service’s preferred option would set a goal of 18,000 acres of active prairie dog colonies in an area 25 miles southeast of Wright. In addition, the Forest Service would set a goal of 9,000 acres of active prairie dog colonies on mostly private land in the surrounding area.
    “We feel in some areas the prairie dogs are detrimental to the land because they dig up the roots of the grasses, and the grasslands begin to blow,” adds Pellatz.
    Eathorne says it will be known mid-November what exactly will fall in the Forest Service’s Record of Decision, including control options and population goals. “When they write the plan they don’t have to follow any one alternative, they can take parts and put one together,” he explains.
    The final EIS includes five alternative scenarios for management on the grasslands, from which the agency can pick and choose before releasing a final decision.
    In Eathorne’s opinion, the basic plan itself was written with a bias away from the grazing permittees and more toward environmentalist interests.
    Pellatz says an encouragement for ranchers is the prairie dog Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) the Forest Service would work on under Alternative 5, which they’ve identified as the “preferred alternative.”
    “Most of us have grazing leases on the Thunder Basin Grasslands, and with the CCA the Forest Service would have protection should the prairie dog be listed, and our leases would as well,” says Pellatz.
    Following the release of the EIS, both the agricultural and environmentalist sides of the issue have 45 days to appeal. “If we don’t appeal we have to live with it,” says Eathorne. “Between the draft and the final copy of the EIS there were several things favorable to the environmentalists, but nothing favorable to ranchers.”
    To view a copy of the final EIS, visit Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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