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Updated: Sunday, 09 Sep 2012, 5:18 PM MDT
Published : Sunday, 09 Sep 2012, 5:17 PM MDT
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Animal conservationists are worried that hundreds of Gunnison's prairie dogs relocated from the city of Santa Fe to the El Malpais National Conservation Area in west-central New Mexico could become targets for shooters.
The environmental group WildEarth Guardians is asking the Bureau of Land Management to consider restrictions on recreational shooting in the prairie dog relocation spot.
Recreational shooters haven't aimed at the prairie dogs yet partly because the spot is remote. BLM deputy state director Bill Merhege tells the Santa Fe New Mexican ( http://bit.ly/OXP1AS ) that the agency met with WildEarth Guardians last week and will be looking at what it can do to ensure the animals don't become a target.
The city of Santa Fe and the BLM signed an agreement in 2009 to relocate prairie dogs to 1,000 acres at El Malpais as they are trapped. To date, about 1,200 Gunnison's prairie dogs have been moved from the city to El Malpais. They are released in a wilderness study area that has few roads or easy access.
"It's been really successful," Merhege said.
Prairie dogs living at El Malpais have fared well so far. A 2006 study by the nonprofit Hawks Aloft found seven colonies, one of which had more than 1,000 animals.
Still, there's been at least one report of someone shooting at a colony, though not the one to where the Santa Fe prairie dogs were moved. Merhege said the targeted colony was one primarily on private land near El Malpais that spills over onto public land.
"Shooting pressure on the (relocation) site may currently be low, but there is no guarantee that the relocation site will not become a target," said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. "Further, it does not take many shooters to have an impact. A single shooter may kill scores of prairie dogs from one colony in a single session."
Biologists consider the Gunnison's prairie dog a keystone species indicating a healthy ecosystem. Prairie dogs are an important food source for raptors, carnivores and the endangered black-footed ferret. In addition, other species such as the burrowing owl rely on the extensive prairie dog tunnels for their living quarters.
The Gunnison's prairie dog is currently a candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It can take years for the agency to complete studies and determine whether a species should be listed and receive additional protections.
The prairie dog population significantly declined over the last few decades because of poisonings, recreational shooting and habitat destruction, according to federal agency and scientific reports.
BLM wants to increase the prairie dog population so that black-footed ferrets can be reintroduced to the area and have a ready food supply.
But until the prairie dog is listed as something more than a varmint under law, BLM can only manage its habitat and offer prairie dogs a place to live. As a species, they fall under the authority of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture unless they become listed as a federally endangered or threatened species.
"Legally, right now, they are considered the same as grasshoppers or other pests," Merhege said.
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican