Fish, Wildlife & Parks is accepting public review of and comments on a plan that outlines various objectives for prairie dog abundance and distribution across northeastern and north-central Montana.
The plan was developed over the past three years by FWP and the Region 6 Prairie Dog Advisory Board, a group of ranchers, conservationists, agency representatives and business interests. The board was tasked with developing various management strategies within the region for black-tailed prairie dogs, a former candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. The purpose of the plan is to help assure the long-term conservation of sustainable prairie dog and associated species populations in Region 6 and to comply with the requirements outlined in the statewide Conservation Plan for Black-Tailed and White-Tailed Prairie Dogs in Montana.
The plan submitted for public review outlines five alternatives for future prairie dog management in the region, ranging from relatively conservative to relatively liberal populations of dogs in colonies of various sizes and distributions. FWP welcomes comments indicating preference for one or more of the alternatives along with information that supports that preference. Comments must be received by Dec. 21 in order to be considered in the final abundance and distribution plan and accompanying implementation strategy, scheduled for release by FWP next year.
Citizens can learn more about the plan and the various alternatives by viewing an electronic version of the document and accompanying environmental assessment (EA) at http://fwp.state.mt.us/publicnotices/notice_983.aspx, by calling FWP at 228-3700 and requesting a hard copy of the documents, or by attending a Dec. 13 public meeting in Malta. Copies of the plan will be available for review and formal comments accepted at the session, which runs from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Community Room of the First State Bank on the corner of U.S. Highway 191 and 1st Street South. The public may also comment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prairie dogs historically ranged across much of northeastern and north-central Montana, but a combination of extensive poisoning, loss of habitat and plague reduced both abundance and distribution. Currently, Region 6 contains approximately 34,500 acres of prairie dogs, concentrated mostly in southern Phillips County. The plan details various abundance and distribution targets, ranging from a low of about 27,000 acres of prairie dogs to a high of 49,000 acres. The plan’s preferred alternative suggests managing for occupied habitat ranging between 30,500 and 41,400 acres, with the actual upper limit determined by landowner tolerance, and a distribution objective of one large complex of prairie dog towns, six to eight mid-sized concentrations and smaller colonies distributed across historic prairie dog range in the region.
Because prairie dogs are an important native component of prairie ecosystems and provide unique habitat for a variety of associated species, prairie dog conservation has been underway in Montana since the late 1980’s. Concern for prairie dog abundance and distribution took on renewed urgency with the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets in Region 6 over the last decade.
Prairie dogs tend to elicit strong responses, from ranchers whose stock compete with prairie dogs for forage, from environmentalists who pin the recovery of endangered ferrets, burrowing owls and mountain plovers on healthy prairie dog populations, and from recreational shooters who make annual journeys to prairie dog country.
Those varied perspectives were represented on the Region 6 Prairie Dog Advisory Board, says Ryan Rauscher, FWP’s native species biologist who assisted in guiding the regional planning process.
“The board worked through tough issues with a lot of conviction and commitment before arriving at distribution and abundance standards that should benefit prairie dogs and associated species while minimizing impacts to rural economies and communities,” says Rauscher. “The plan contains the tools that will guide implementation. I can’t say enough about the work, time and dedication that the advisory board invested in this plan.”
The Region 6 abundance and distribution plan is the first regional plan that dovetails with the 2002 statewide Conservation Plan.