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Forest Service Proposes Widespread Poisoning of Prairie Dogs Across South Dakota and Nebraska

Poisoning threatens recovery of black-footed ferret, rarest mammal in North America

CHADRON, NE – The U.S. Forest Service today released its draft plan that may drastically increase the poisoning of prairie dog colonies this fall throughout the Buffalo Gap and Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota and the Oglala National Grassland in Nebraska. Widespread poisoning could kill tens of thousands of prairie dogs, which would jeopardize the continued recovery of the critically imperiled black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America. The plan would also harm other wildlife that depend on prairie dogs for food or prairie dog burrows for shelter, including rare species such as swift foxes, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks.

“By destroying prairie dog colonies, the Forest Service is threatening the recovery of wild black-footed ferrets, one of the nation’s great Endangered Species Act success stories,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Taxpayers who have invested millions of dollars in black-footed ferret recovery will now be paying to destroy the most important and successful ferret habitat on earth, in Conata Basin, South Dakota.”

While the plan permits poisoning of prairie dogs throughout the National Grasslands, the main target for poisoning is an area of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland called the Conata Basin. This region is vital to recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret, as it houses the largest population of prairie dogs on public lands in the Great Plains. Continued recovery of black-footed ferrets depends on maintaining large colonies of prairie dogs, on which black-footed ferrets are completely dependent for food and shelter. Of the approximately 500 black-footed ferrets living today in the wild, half live in Conata Basin. Three of the five proposed poisoning options would reduce prairie dogs to the point where ferrets could no longer survive in this region.

In addition to providing food and shelter for black-footed ferrets, science has shown that prairie dogs play a key role in the ecosystems of the Great Plains. The Conata Basin sustains a newly-reintroduced population of rare swift foxes and some of the largest populations of rare burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks in the northern Great Plains.

“Twenty-five years ago, we were granted a rare second chance at saving the black-footed ferret from extinction,” said Sterling Miller, senior wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies Natural Resource Center. “After years of making black-footed ferret recovery a priority on these lands, the Forest Service is doing a complete one-eighty. In doing so, the Service is abandoning its responsibility to maintain healthy wildlife and habitat on these public lands for future generations of Americans to enjoy.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners have spent millions of dollars recovering black-footed ferrets and restoring them to the wild. Grazing records indicate that the public lands in Conata Basin feed the equivalent of 700 head of cattle per year – even in non-drought years. At an estimated profit margin of $27 per head of livestock, millions of dollars spent on black-footed ferret recovery would be sacrificed for $19,000 of private profit per year.

Prairie dog colonies currently occupy less than five percent of the National Grasslands targeted by this plan, and prairie dogs living on public lands adjacent to private lands are already being regularly poisoned by the Forest Service. The state of South Dakota also poisons prairie dogs on private lands next to these public lands. Because there are no restrictions on poisoning prairie dogs on private lands, it is essential that colonies on public lands remain large enough to fulfill their ecosystem function, including supporting black-footed ferret populations. 

“With no science to back their claims, the Forest Service is preparing to needlessly eradicate numerous species that make their home in the National Grasslands,” said Steve Forrest of the World Wildlife Fund. “America’s grasslands are a significant part of our natural heritage. We should be celebrating and restoring these special places, not destroying them.”

The public has 45 days to comment on the poisoning plan before the Forest Service issues its final Environmental Impact Statement. According to Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Federation and World Wildlife Fund, there is still time to work out a compromise that meets the needs of both ranchers and wildlife in the region.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a joint release by Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and World Wildlife Fund.
Defenders of Wildlife is a leading nonprofit conservation organization recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat. With more than 500,000 members and supporters, Defenders of Wildlife is an effective leader on endangered species issues. For more information, go to
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