IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) describes that Utah Prairie Dog is a species of rodent that inhabits the grassland in the southern part of Utah in the United States. This species inhabit grassland areas and feed on grasses and forbs (USFWS 5) that are readily available in their habitat. Social structure of this species is called a clan consisting of an adult male, several females and their young (USFWS 5).
Historically, the habitat of Utah Prairie Dogs were reportedly extended from Pine and Buckskin valleys in Beaver and Iron counties, north to Salina Canyon and near Gunnison in Sevier County, south to Bryce Canyon National Park, and east to the foothills of the Aquarius Plateau. Currently, the habitat is significantly reduced to the an area in Awapa Plateau, along the east fork of the Sevier River, and some population surviving in eastern Iron County.
As part of the standard procedures in assessing species’ status, IUCN’s species survival commission (SSC) conducts regular assessment every 3-4 years to evaluate the status of Utah Prairie Dogs. The status of population is evaluated based on scientific assessment of population size, trends of population, geographic distribution and threats. In 2008, IUCN conducted an assessment and formally listed this species as ‘endangered’ because the extent of the population is limited to a very small area of occupancy. This is due to the rapid decline of its population and reduction in the habitat size and quality . Ecological factors such as predation by the Northern Goshawks (Pavlová and Berec 2) and the slow reproduction (Hoogland 917) create a disadvantage to the survival of this species. Furthermore, deliberate poisoning by ranchers, habitat destruction , and plague by bacteria Yersinia pestis (Antolin, Gober and Luce 104) contribute to the further decline of the population of Utah Prairie Dog. In general, the above cases suggest that deliberate control, urbanization and urban sprawl occurring in the species’ habitat range have created changes in habitat characteristics that reduced the habitat quality. Consequently, the Utah Prairie Dog’s population is declining due to inability to adapt to these massive changes.
Furthermore, the spread and occurrence of this plague is also influenced by the prairie dog’s colony and landscape characteristics (Collinge, Johnson and Ray 953). All of these pressures reduced the population of Utah Prairie Dogs to only 3,300 individuals spread in 37 colonies (USFWS 16). This rapidly declining trend alarmed conservationists and urged wildlife authority to lead an effort for recovering this endangered species population.
The effort started with listing this species as endangered in june 1973 under Endangered Species Conservation Act 1969 (USFWS 12). The Recovery plan for conserving the Utah Prairie Dog must be based on scientific approach, and this approach requires the use of existing data and quantitative analysis to formulate the best options for species recovery (Harding, Crone and Elderd 498). Unfortunately, there are some species that do not have adequte scientific data for constructing a sound recovery plan.
Recovery plan for Utah Prairie Dog is formulated by US Fish and Wildlife Services in 1991 and is revised in 2012 (USFWS 12) to accommodate revised recovery criteria. This recovery plan aims to recover the population status of the Utah Prairie Dogs, so that this species can be removed from the endangered species list under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). It may be ideal for the recovery plan to aim to remove the Utah Prairie Dog from the IUCN’s endangered species status.
Successful achievement of recovery strategy described in the recovery plan is measured by a set of criteria consisting of parameters established based on the best available data and information (USFWS 73). These specific criteria are: continuous protection of at least 2,000 ha of habitat, existence of at least 2,000 animals within the above habitat, availability of management plan including that to prevent disease outbreak, implementation of educational and awareness programs to reduce illegal control and harvest of this species, and the availability of adaptive mangement plan to accommodate changes in climate and other dynamic factors (USFWS 73).
In order to achieve the above aim or goal, the recovery plan contains two main objectives. The objectives are: to protect the suitable habitat and to establish/maintain viable populations of the Utah Prairie Dog in their natural habitat. The recovery plan outlines that the above objectives can be met by implementing eight major recommendations consisting of: evaluation and update of data, conservation of suitable habitat, research to minimize impact of disease, capacity building to respond to natural disturbances (drought, fire, etc.,), translocation of Utah Prairie Dogs, implementation of public outreach program, continuation of research to develop effective methods to respond to threats, and implementation of monitoring (USFWS 81).
Evaluation and update of data is the prerequisite for defining the population status. Population data will allow analysis if population is stagnant, increasing or decreasing. Conservation of suitable habitat addresses the issues of reduction of habitat size and declining habitat quality. Conserving suitable habitat means securing the population of Utah Prairie Dog and allowing the population to grow. Research to minimize impacts of disease is also a significant strategy to minimize (or eliminate) the effects of plague that once wiped out a large portion of the population. Capacity building to respond to natural disturbance will allow prevention of negative effects that can potentially affect the size and the quality of Utah Prairie Dog’s habitat. Translocation of this species will be required if the damage to the existing habitat is severe and irreversible. Public outreach activity is an important part of the recovery strategy, as it increases awareness and may consequently reduce the illegal control of this species. Continuation of research is needed to ensure that the recovery strategy can address the threats that are dynamics and difficult to predict (such as impact of climate change). Monitoring efforts for this population ensures the continuation of the implementation of the recovery by allowing continuation of population data update.
Evaluation of the recovery plan emphasizes on the process of formulating the recommendation, assessing the potential for implementation (resource availability) and the chance of success of such implementation. The data for formulating the recovery is adequate and it is available in terms of historical records of distribution and disease occurences. Data on the species’ biology also allow calculation of viable population size. This estimated numbers of individuals for a viable population is listed as one of the criteria of species recovery. On the other hand, recommendation for increasing awareness may lack tangible data for establishing quantitative recommendation in the recovery plan. Awareness can onlybe measured by the process (numbers of audience receiving the awareness material) and the result (changes in behaviour after receiving material). These two parameters may not be measureable in the same manners as the population and habitat parameters, but nevertheless there are some options of using proxy parameters to assess the achievements of the recovery plan.
Discussion in this paper is focused on two specific recommendations namely research to minimize impact of disease and translocation. These two recommendations are the top tiers (USFWS 53), pivotal to the recovery of the Utah Prairie Dog, and will have direct impacts to this species. Furthermore, these two recommendations involve tangible data for baseline and monitoring, and also require multidisciplinary approach in order to ensure success of the implementation.
USFWS outlines that research to minimize impact of disease consists of development and implementation of plague prevention plan, development and implementation of monitoring strategy and disease database, and identification of other diseases that may decimate Utah Prairie Dog population. The recommendation to minimize impact of disease is formulated based on past occurences of disease among the Prairie Dog populations. This plague is known as the sylvatic plague caused by bacterial pathogens spreading through insect vectors (Antolin, Gober and Luce 3). Past occurrences of the plague threatened not only the Prairie Dog population, but also human population through possibility of disease transmission to human in zoonosis scenario (Antolin, Gober and Luce 4). The effect of the plague on Prairie Dog population can be seen in the decline of population from 7,527 individuals in the spring count of 1989 to only 1,291 individuals in the spring count of 1990 (USFWS 9). Therefore, it makes great sense to pay attention to the risk of disease/plague and develop specific recommendations in relevance with this threat. The designer of the recovery plan seems to consider that pathogens and/or disease-host relationship may change due to landscape context and habitat characteristics (Collinge, Johnson and Ray 953).
Multidisciplinary approach is important in this recommendation, as the research requires different angles and solutions in order to overcome the problem. This research effort should be able to address the challenges in recovering the Utah Prairie Dog population. This research effort shoul be able to identify the origin of this sylvatic plague from epidemiological point of view (agent, host and environment). Furthermore, the research should also be able to identify potential risk of plague not only from one pathogenic agent. Most importantly, this research should be able to find way to prevent spread of the disease (preventive measures) and to recover/rehabilitate populations already infected with such pathogenic agent (curative measures).
Given the nature of this recommendation, ideally this recommendation is implemented by a team consisting many different expertises such as veterinary research, policy, and biomedics. For example, the hypotheses that plague occurrence is associated with landscape context and colony characteristics (size, isolation, etc.) have been tested and confirmed using long term data (Collinge, Johnson and Ray 951). Furthermore, research activities on the vector of Yersinia pestis have been implemented and have discovered a way to reduce impact of the disease by eliminating the disease vector using deltamethrin. This method is able to increase survival rate of the Utah Prairie Dog by 30% (Biggins, Godbey and Gage 17). This shows that, to some extent, the threats of plague have been addressed from the point of view of spread characteristic and possible means of minimizing the impacts.
A research to minimize impact of disease to the population should ideally include the establishment of disease screening and quarantine procedures, as they have high relevance with translocation recommendation. Without disease screening and quarantine procedures, there is a risk of spreading the disease to the new population. This will create additional focal point for plague and can make the plague spread even further from the original source. Translocating animals from disease-prone area involves observation and a 14-day quarantine procedures to reduce disease risk (Truett, Dullum and Matchett 865).
Translocation is a recommendation aimed to establish additional Recovery Units (RU) to allow growth of population. This recommendation has not shown any good results in the past due to high mortality (Curtis 5) , but it is still listed as one of the top-tier recommendations due to the urgency to set up more RUs as part of the recovery strategy. Recovery plan by USFWS outlines that translocation strategy involves selecting and prioritizing translocation sites, review the translocation procedures, and implement translocation according to approved procedures (USFWS 80). Using the above procedures, translocation is still regarded as a potential measure for restoring a population (Hale, Koprowski and Hicks 310).
Translocation sites can be selected based on the quality of natural condition of this particular site, or it can be enhanced to increas cool grass availability on site (Caudill 6). This can be achieved by natural means such as grazing to promote the growth of grass and forbs required for the diet of the Utah Prairie Dog. The hypothesis regarding specific dietary preferences is tested and confirmed. Forage availability is crucial for the survival of Utah Prairie Dog, as this species is known to have specific forage preferences containing linoleic acid (Lehmer, Biggins and Antolin 258). Lack of such forage preference will shift the dietary composition and could potentially influence the overall and hybernation physiology of this species.
Habitat manipulation is proven to be significantly affecting the settlement of Utah Prairie Dog upon introduction to the new site or expansion of the existing colony. The hypotheses stating that the Prairie Dog preferes treated sites (mow and burn) over the untreated sites are tested. The result confirms that the treated sites are preferred, as indicated by the numbers of burrows compared to the control (untreated) sites (Northcott, Andersen and Roemer 499).
The second step in the translocation strategy is to develop and agree on the translocation procedures. Although translocation efforts have shown high mortaliy, current technological advances present translocation methods that have low rate of mortality and higher rate of success. Such technological advances involve selecting the source population, animal handling, quarantine, acclimatization, release and post-release monitoring procedures (Truett, Dullum and Matchett 863). To ensure success, translocation efforts should also pay attention to the welfare of the animals through enrichment process. This process is highly applicable to social animals such as the Utah Prairie Dog, and it allows the animals to properly acclimatize to the new surroundings. The success of enrichment process can be evaluated from the behaviour of the individual animals such as social behaviors, ability to forage, ability to avoid predation, etc. (Reading, Miller and Shepherdson 339).
Despite the inclusion of translocation in the recovery strategy for Utah Prairie Dog, there are risks of low survival rate of the translocated individuals. The survival rate in the new colony may be influenced from various factors such as climatic (drought and flood that lead to food scarcity), improper translocation procedures, and genetic factor (poor selection of individuals for translocation). Considering these risks, expansion of existing colony rather than establising new ones through translocation is seen as a safer approach for ensuring the survival of the species (Davidson, Friggens and Shoemaker 1). This can be done by treating the habitat with mowing and burning, and the population may expand to the direction where the treated site is located (Northcott, Andersen and Roemer 499). Although this approach seems contradictive with translocation recommendation, it relates to the recommendation for conserving habitat in federal, tribal, state and private lands in the recovery plan.
Adaptive management is an important component of the recovery plan of Utah Prairie Dog, as it provides the ability to adapt and modify the recovery plan according to the available resources and technology. This is reflected in the process of revising the 1991 version of the recovery plan with modifications in recovery criteria in 2012. This shows that the recovery plan is accommodating new developments as well as new federal, state, or international regulations. Adaptive management effort is shown by requiring the recovery plan to undergo review and revision every five years (Gazenski, Lamb and Krehbiel 5). An example of technological advance used to improve the recovery planning process is the use of spatial data.
The role of spatial data is crucial in technical aspect of recovery planning, for it provides analysis unavailable from conventional analysis. The geographical context will yield information to complement analysis of habitat, population distribution, and translocation. Spatial data is also crucial in regulatory aspect, as it can provide input in decision and policy making processes (Gazenski, Lamb and Krehbiel 6). Both the technical and regulatory aspects of recovery planning benefit from the ability to compare different layers and context on one map. This is a specific feature available only from spatial analysis, and this has been well implemented in relevance with The Endangered Species Act.
Geospatial technology offers varieties of analyses such as geographic distribution and directional analyses using spatial mapping and rose diagram respectively (Northcott, Andersen and Roemer 498). These examples show that the advance of geospatial technology presents new options for analysis which can further enhace the decision making capabilities.
Literatures and past experiences have shown that data is available and is extensively used to test multiple hypotheses (forage preference, habitat preference, correlation between plague with landscape context and colony characteristics) and develop the recovery plan. However, experts believe that the plan can be regularly improved by continuous data update.
Although specific targets such as size of habitat, numbers of individuals, and community participations are stated in the recovery plan, raw data is not available in this paper to show that the recovery plan is achieving its target. However, journal articles used as references for this paper indicate the trend that the population of Utah Prairie Dog is in the process of recovering. Furthermore, these articles also present some innovative measures for ensuring the success of Utah Prairie Dog recovery by manipulating habitat, preventing the spread of disease and translocating individuals to set up more recovery units in the historing range of this species. The use of spatial analysis strengthen the analytical capability required in revising and updating the recovery plan.
In general, recommendations in the recovery plan (especially in relevance with minimizing the impact of disease and conducting translocation) are followed. These recommendations are also improved with research activities which consequently provides better description of the status of the Utah Prairie Dog population. For instance, threats of disease/plague are identified as a top-tier threat. Recommendations are followed by efforts to identify applicable preventive and curative measures. Similarly, the recommendation to repopulate historical range is followed up by implementation of translocation and continuous improvement on translocation techniques to reduce mortality rate and to improve survival rate. Low mortality, high survival rates and various behavioural indicators (social, foraging behaviors and predator avoidance) are used as recovery criteria to determine the success of recovery plan implementation.
Failures in implementing the recovery plan occur due to incompatibility between experimental and actual field conditions. For instance, translocation had high mortality rate due to constraints in transport and animal handling in the field. This problem is overcome by improving translocation techniques. Habitat manipulation by grazing did not show success in promoting higher rate of settlement (indicated by the numbers of burrows). Improvement is made by mowing and burning which resulted in high rate of settlement and also expansion of existing colonies. This shows that habitat manipulation can create conducive environment for Utah Prairie Dog population. It can be concluded that the success of implementations is mainly attributed to the efforts to learn from past experience and improve the methods and techniques. Improvements and modifications based on current challenges and needs are accommodated in the revision of recovery plan.
Future recovery plan should include advance criteria such as innovative plague prevention using epidemiological approach to predict the possible spread. Efforts for plague prevention should also include analysis of seroprevalence of pathogenic agent (Yersinia pestis) in Utah Prairie Dog and other indicator species to determine the status of disease risk in the population. This should be done regularly in order to learn the trend of the disease, detect presence of the disease even without clinical signs and consequently provide early warning to prevent disease from spreading.
Success of translocation can also be improved using geotagging technology. Translocated animals will be equiped with tracking device to allow monitoring of movements post-translocation, as well as to allow behavioural study of translocated individuals. This analysis can provide data and information on the shifts (or potential shifts) in behaviour. Shifts in behaviour may provide windows for evaluating the success of translocation. Moreover, the use of geotagging and geotracking technology for post-translocation monitoring allow predictive analysis of colony spread and individual association (clan formation) among translocated individuals. All of these efforts can be used for perpetual improvement of the recovery plan which is aimed towards full recovery of the Utah Prairie Dog species.
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