By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The Humane Society of the United States is extending its programs to include efforts to protect prairie dogs.

Thursday, the group better known for its protection of dogs and cats, as well as its undercover videos of mistreatment of cattle and chickens, announced that it had acquired programs that had operated under the auspices of the Prairie Dog Coalition, a group based in Boulder, Colo.

The Prairie Dog Coalition was formed in 2001, the outgrowth of a National Prairie Dog Summit in Colorado that was held to determine what can be done to protect a diminishing prairie dog population.

"Prairie dogs have declined by almost 95 percent from their historic numbers," Lindsey Sterling Krank said in a statement announcing the change. "A healthy prairie dog population is essential to the survival of a number of species and the health of the ecosystem.

Krank, who had served as director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, will continue in that role for the Humane Society.

In the release, the Humane Society said that it already has a series of services available to solve many issues involving wildlife, as well as its Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust to conserve habitat.

"Since the PDC and the HSUS worked together in many states through the prairie dog's range, the two groups decided to join forces to increase their effectiveness in advocating for prairie dogs," the statement said.

That is at the heart of the decision to combine the two groups -- under the umbrella of the better-known and more powerful Humane Society.

"Hopefully it will mean we will do more for prairie dog advocacy," Krank said in a telephone interview Thursday. She said prairie dogs are a keystone species, with as many as nine other animals relying on them for food and shelter.

As the Prairie Dog Coalition, Krank said the group has been focusing its efforts on issues involving poisons used to control prairie dogs, including efforts to reduce the amount of land being poisoned in the Conata Basin in South Dakota. Krank said the group has also been working to convert Groundhog Day -- Feb. 2 -- into Prairie Dog day in the states where the animals exist.

While the Prairie Dog Coalition hasn't ventured much into Kansas, Krank said she has remained aware and supportive of efforts to preserve prairie dogs to support the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets in Logan County.

With the help of a larger group such as the Humane Society, Krank is hopeful that it will be able to help "support private landowners who want to keep prairie dogs on their land."

She's also hopeful that the group can find support to expand its efforts into Kansas.