Prairie Dog Could Get Federal Protections

Across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles large prairie dog mounds dot the area's landscape. But soon there could be more mounds in sight.

Ervin Mitchell overlooks a field that once used to harvest wheat.

"There would be 15 to 20 acres of wheat that they would eat and there's nothing now," Mitchell said. "They keep it bare."

The land is now home to hundreds of black-tail prairie dogs.  For Mitchell, their presence on his property makes for a dangerous situation.

"A horse steps in that hole, well, he'll fall with you and probably break his leg and probably break your neck," he said about the prairie dogs' burrows.

More concerning to Mitchell, and other local farmers, is giving the prairie dog federal protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition from the WildEarth Guardians, a Denver-based group, asking to put the prairie dog on the endangered or threatened species list.

"What this does is puts into place the next step. A more thorough analysis of exactly what is happening with the black-tail prairie dog," said Elizabeth Slown from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to Larry Weimers, a local biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Panhandle region has not seen a decline in the animal's population.

Weimers estimates there are 500,000 prairie dogs in the state alone. But numbers are not a concern in the federal agency's investigation.

"Right now, we have what the petition says," said Slown. "And the petition is concerned about things such as plague, such as poisoning black-tail prairie dogs."

Currently, in the state of Oklahoma, using poison requires a state permit. If the animal becomes part of the endangered species list, this form of eradication would no longer be accepted. Some local farmers disagree with that.

"Well, I'll just be honest with you. They'll have to have a guard on them on my property because I'll eradicate them. I can't afford to have them on my property."

Mitchell says his livelihood depends on it.

The federal agency wants to hear from local environmental groups. The comment period ends on February 2nd.