By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Denial of a request to afford federal protection to the controversial black-tailed prairie dog will hurt other species as well, the group seeking endangered species status said.

Lauren McCain, WildEarth Guardian's prairie protection director, decried U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision denying the request.

"I think it's a terrible decision for prairie dogs and all the wildlife that depends on them," she said.

Mike Lockhart, a retired biologist with the FWS and former black-footed ferret recovery program coordinator, doesn't think prairie dogs should be on the list.

"However, prairie dogs are in great need of positive, proactive management to ensure good, well distributed populations, especially in states like Kansas," Lockhart said. "And I remain disappointed in the continued inaction by many states and federal agencies who should be doing much more to promote prairie dog refugia and private land owner incentives. Prairie dogs are a legacy species and perhaps the single most essential component of an intact, healthy prairie ecosystem."

Prairie dogs are considered a keystone, or legacy, species because so many other animals rely on them for food and shelter.

The decision to deny endangered species status to prairie dogs was announced Wednesday by the federal wildlife agency, which said a listing was not warranted because the animal is in no danger of becoming extinct.

Prairie dogs are thought to occupy about 2.5 million acres, about 2 percent of what they historically inhabited.

McCain said that's too few.

"We should be seeing over 90 percent more of them," she said, "to support the black-footed ferret, burrowing owls and the swift fox."

In Kansas, the number of acres are the subject of debate.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks reported to the federal wildlife agency that 173,593 acres of land, much of it in northwest Kansas, was occupied by prairie dogs.

But, FWS said in its decision denying protection, the state did not determine the rate of occupation.

"If the current Kansas estimate of 173,593 acres of occupied habitat were assumed to have 81 percent occupancy, this would equate to 140,610 acres," the decision states. The 81-percent occupancy rate is the average from 10 other state surveys.

"Black-tailed prairie dogs really hold the prairie ecosystem together," McCain said. "By protecting prairie dogs, we protect a whole range of species."

While McCain took issue with specific findings by the FWS, she said the overall issue is prairie dog complexes are becoming more fragmented and less able to support other animals.

She said the listing of the prairie dog also would have sent a clear message to the Environmental Protection Agency on issues surrounding the registration of two blood-thinning chemicals used to poison prairie dogs.

What response will follow the decision still is unclear.

"We're going to explore all our options," McCain said, "but we're certainly not ruling out a lawsuit."

While McCain was hopeful that protection might be afforded the animals, she wasn't surprised with the decision.

"As you know, prairie dogs are very controversial," she said. "Prairie dogs are just tough. There's a lot of opposition to them receiving protection."

She stopped short, however, of saying that politics had intervened in the decision-making process.

Lockhart, however, said earlier federal decisions that prairie dogs need protection "revealed the true nature of politics and the agricultural stranglehold on sound management of this species across the west.  

"It is telling indeed that only the threat of an ESA designation would encourage some states to develop proactive management strategies, only to revert back to a former position of neglect, or worse, when consideration of federal protections are withdrawn. Such an important representative of any state's wildlife community is deserving of more careful and thoughtful management treatment."