Prairie Dog Science Reversed by Interior Department Decree

Published Nov 17, 2008

Two species of prairie dogs, both threatened with the possibility of extinction, were denied protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on the explicit direction of Julie MacDonald, a political appointee, in contradiction of the findings of FWS scientists.

The buff-colored Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)1 lives in sagebrush grasslands in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Its current habitat has been reduced to approximately 5 percent of its historical range,2 and the onslaught on its home territory has not diminished. Oil and gas drilling, urban sprawl, sylvatic plague, and continued shooting and poisoning of these animals all threaten the species with extinction.3

The environmental group Forest Guardians, in response to a routine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, received several documents showing that as of January 19, 2006, the Gunnison's prairie dog was on track for a positive 90-day finding—that is, a preliminary FWS determination that the species may deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and that the FWS should undertake a full 12-month review of the scientific evidence.

Nevertheless, because of explicit orders from MacDonald, the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office of FWS (Region 6) was forced to change its positive finding to a negative one.4 To support this decision, the scientific conclusion that sylvatic plague is a significant threat to the species was removed from an early draft in favor of language suggesting that the impact of the disease remains "unclear" despite considering no new scientific information that would support such a change.5

Another species of prairie dog was similarly denied protection. The white-tailed prairie dog (Cynomis leucurus), with its characteristic white-tipped tail and black cheek markings, makes its home in higher-elevation grasslands across the western half of Wyoming, western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southern Montana.6 Unfortunately, the white-tailed prairie dog, like the Gunnison's prairie dog, is also suffering severe declines, having vanished from more than 90 percent of its historical habitat.7 Biologists fear that this species is headed for extinction without assertive conservation action.

Documents show that MacDonald directly tampered with the FWS biologists' scientific determination that the white-tailed prairie dog could warrant ESA protection, and that she prevented the agency from fully reviewing the animal's status. Handwritten edits and "track changes" in Microsoft Word documents obtained by Forest Guardians through a FOIA request show that MacDonald herself eliminated or disregarded scientific information from the draft finding that would have led to a positive determination.

MacDonald asserted that threats to the prairie dog from oil and gas development and loss of habitat were "speculative" and lacking in "substantial scientific information."8 Accompanying emails indicate MacDonald ordered the 90-day petition finding to be changed from positive to negative, thereby reversing FWS scientists' call for more scientific information to be collected to properly assess threats to the prairie dog's survival.9

MacDonald resigned in May 2007 after an Interior Department Inspector General (IG) report criticized her for overriding recommendations of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists about how to protect endangered species.10 Following the release of the IG report, FWS announced its intent to review decisions involving 8 species that may have been inappropriately influenced by MacDonald – including the white-tailed prairie dog. In November 2007, FWS announced that the negative 90-day finding for the white-tailed prairie dog would be reconsidered and that FWS would undertake a full 12-month review of the species in 2009.11

Following a court settlement with Forest Guardians, a 12-month review of the Gunnison's prairie dog completed in February 2008 found the animal was warranted to be listed under the ESA but that listing was "precluded by higher priority actions."12

1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regulatory profile: Gunnison's prairie dog.
2. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 12-Month Finding on a Petition To List the Gunnison's Prairie Dog as Threatened or Endangered. February 5, 2008.
3. Prairie Dog Coalition. About Prairie Dogs. Accessed August 5, 2008.
4. Email from Chris Nolin to Kurt Johnson, Subject: Gunnison pd. January 19, 2006; Email from Julie MacDonald to Renne Lohoefner, Subject: Gunnison Prairie Dog. January 22, 2006.
5. Summary of Factor C, Supporting Document #1, p. 31. Attachment to email sent January 19, 2006; Summary of Factor C, Supporting Document #2, p. 28. Attachment to email sent January 23, 2006.
6. Prairie Dog Coalition.
7. Pauli, J.N., Stephens, R.M. and Anderson, S.H. 2006. White-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys leucurus): A Technical Conservation Assessment. Prepared for the USDA Forest Service, November 13, p. 13.
8. Track changes for edits made by Julie MacDonald, p. 26 of Supporting Document #1, October 2004.
9. Email dated November 1, 2004.
10. Inspector General, Department of the Interior. 2007. Report of Investigation, Julie MacDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
11. Letter from Kenneth Stansell to Rep. Nick Rahall.  November 23, 2007.  Rep. Rahall (D-WV) is the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
12. FWS, 2008. 12-Month Finding on the Gunnison's Prairie Dog.