LOCAL NEWS

Utah prairie dogs went from near-extinction to conservation success. Here’s why

May 13, 2024, 1:10 PM | Updated: 1:17 pm

PANGUITCH — Utah Prairie Dog Day was held Thursday at Bryce Canyon National Park to celebrate and raise awareness for the once-endangered species, and the large part Utah Prairie Dogs play in the state’s ecosystem.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources coordinated the event with the park, where Petey the prairie dog joined a group of kids and parents. Research Egologist with the United States Geological Survey David Eads spoke and held games with the kids, and drawings from the event of Utah prairie dogs will be displayed in the visitor’s center.

“It’s important I think for adults too. Kids are really fun to teach, and oh my gosh it was amazing watching all the kids today. It was like — the line for all the kids that wanted to do the little prairie dog calling contest was amazing,” said Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Biologist Barbara Sugarman. “I think there’s so much to learn about what can be done with the species.”

Petey the prairie dog at the Utah prairie dog day in Bryce Canyon National Park on May 9, 2024. (Marc Weaver, KSL TV)

According to the National Park Service, Utah prairie dogs are one of five species living in North America. Prairie dogs once scattered an enormous area of the western Great Plains, and Utah prairie dogs were recorded in numbers as high as 95,000 in the 1920s.

As western settlers continued to move in, the number of Utah prairie dogs declined because of pest control, disease, and loss of habitat. By 1972, Utah prairie dogs had been reduced to an estimated 3,300, the DWR stated. In 1973, the mammals were considered an endangered species.

“I know there’s definitely some conflict situations with Utah prairie dogs and we want to make sure we help those folks and also help the species at the same time. We do lots of trapping and translocation efforts in those conflict situations,” Sugarman said.

Sugarman said conservation strategists reintroduced a colony to Bryce Canyon National Park in the 1980s. Sugarman said 153 Utah prairie dogs now live inside the park, making up the largest protected population of Utah prairie dogs.

Range-wide, Sugarman said conservationists counted over 9,500 Utah prairie dogs during the spring count of 2023. However, because of the timing of the count, and the fact that young prairie dogs and newborns will not be seen, DWR estimated a population of over 69,500.

Sugarman said the DWR works with multiple other agencies, including biologists with Bryce Canyon, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, and even Utah counties.

She said that due to the communal effort, all units met their recovery goal for the first time in 2023, which was a “huge accomplishment.”

“It’s a really good story of conservation success, Utah prairie dogs are doing really well right now, the population is pretty close to one of the all-time high peaks right now,” Sugarman said. “I like to say it’s a good lesson of partnership and how working together really accomplishes amazing conservation goals.”

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Utah prairie dogs went from near-extinction to conservation success. Here’s why