Burrows Without Borders

Prairie dogs are making a comeback in Arizona—but conservationists in Sonora say they're paying the price

The Arizona Game and Fish Department took 60 prairie dogs out of northern Mexico last year for release into Southern Arizona—but Mexican conservationists say they didn't have the prairie dogs to spare.

Conservationists at the nonprofit organization Naturalia wanted to boost the prairie-dog population in Sonora by relocating prairie dogs to a new colony, forcing the animals to spread out and repopulate the countryside.

But just days before Naturalia was scheduled to put down traps last October, Arizona Game and Fish beat it to the punch, trapping the animals and bringing them to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, about 45 miles south of Tucson.

"We tried in every diplomatic way possible to stop that capture," said Juan Carlos Bravo, the northwestern Mexico representative for Naturalia. "We very kindly offered that you can take prairie dogs from Chihuahua, where they're very abundant. You can take them from Texas, where they have programs for lethal removal. You can take them from New Mexico, where there are several places that need prairie-dog management. But they would not budge."

In the state of Sonora, where prairie dogs once ran wild, there are only two colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs left. Both are in the San Pedro River basin priority conservation area, roughly 100 miles southeast of Nogales, where Naturalia owns and operates conservation land.

Arizona is also short of prairie dogs. Black-tailed prairie dogs once inhabited as many as 1 million acres of Southern Arizona, but due to eradication efforts in the first half of the 20th century by ranchers and the federal government, the only other black-tailed prairie dogs now in the state were brought in by Game and Fish from New Mexico in 2008.

The Game and Fish Department's borderlands program, working with CEDES, its Sonoran counterpart, counted the prairie dogs in Sonora using a method that Naturalia says was never meant to measure such small populations. Game and Fish shot back with an expert opinion that its estimate of more than 900 prairie dogs in the larger colony is accurate. Naturalia's count for the same colony is about 400.

Because Naturalia believes its numbers are correct, and that the colony in Sonora could not sustain both extractions, it abandoned plans to relocate the prairie dogs within the conservation area.

"The result of the (Game and Fish) project is that prairie-dog recovery within Sonora had to stop," Bravo said. "It was not ethical for us to extract an additional 60 prairie dogs. We couldn't in good conscience go on and say, 'You do your project; we'll do ours.' That's not the way conservation works."

Bravo admits that Game and Fish officials and their Sonoran counterparts at CEDES didn't break any laws. But Naturalia still filed a lawsuit in a Mexican federal court, alleging that the permit never should have been granted for several reasons—including the fact that Naturalia had already been issued a permit to extract prairie dogs from the same colony. The suit also raises questions about who has, or should have, permitting authority.

A judge granted a temporary suspension of the permit, which allows for the extraction of a total of 100 prairie dogs. But James Driscoll, the Game and Fish Department's bird and mammal program manager, said that in order to appease Naturalia, the department had already agreed to take no more than 60 prairie dogs. He said the department is confident that the permit complied with all aspects of Mexican law.

Driscoll said the department's ultimate goal in relocating the prairie dogs is to get the Arizona population up to a sustainable level, and help keep the critters off the endangered-species list. After that, the Arizona prairie dogs can become a source colony, and the state can give some prairie dogs back to Mexico and to other states that are trying to re-establish their populations.

Prairie dogs are known as a "keystone" species of the desert grasslands, because they provide aeration to the ground, mix soils and nutrients, graze grasses, clip sprouting mesquite trees, and serve as food to many other grassland animals.

"We're trying to make sure everybody has a good number of prairie dogs," Driscoll said. "We're not just grasping up prairie dogs in order to make the source population suffer; that wouldn't work for us. We're trying to reach 7,100 acres (of Southern Arizona occupied by prairie dogs), and eliminating those source colonies is not in our best interests."

He said Game and Fish couldn't take the prairie dogs from parts of Texas, because prairie dogs from east of the Pecos River are different from those west of the river, and they don't want to dilute the species. Game and Fish has already taken prairie dogs from New Mexico twice, and it doesn't want to keep hitting the same population year after year. Getting them from Chihuahua is an option for the future, Driscoll said, but not this time. Why not?

"Because we chose Sonora first," he said. "It wasn't even a controversy until Naturalia made it a controversy."

Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, said that kind of attitude doesn't surprise her. In her years on the job, she has seen a pattern from Game and Fish of what she calls hostility toward nongovernment organizations, and an unwillingness to compromise.

"We support the program with Game and Fish to restore prairie dogs to the grasslands of southeast Arizona," she said. "But obviously, no relocation should ever be done at the expense of the source population. We want to make sure there are healthy populations of prairie dogs south and north of the border, and that means having conversations that are not one-way conversations."

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