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DENVER — For the second consecutive year, Utah earned a below average grade on how it protects prairie dog populations, despite millions that have been spent in relocation efforts and habitat preservation.
In conjunction with Groundhog Day Wednesday, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians released its annual "Report from the Burrow — Forecast of the Prairie Dog," in which federal agencies and 12 Western states are graded in seven categories.
Those categories, modeled after criteria used to determine eligibility for protection under the Endangered Species Act, include conservation and restoration plans, habitat restoration, the extent to which shooting or poisoning is permitted, monitoring and mitigation of the plague and policies that either contribute to conservation or assist in the decline of populations.
The group said it linked an assessment of protections for the prairie dog with Groundhog Day because both burrowing rodents provide humans with predictions for the future.
While Punxsutawney Phil entertains with foretelling the length of winter, the report notes that the status of prairie dog populations "predicts the future of western prairie ecosystems they create and sustain."
This is the second year, too, that a Utah student will be at the state Capitol pushing passage of a resolution that declares Feb. 2 as Utah Prairie Dog Day.
The effort is backed by the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States. Last year, it never got off the ground even though the petition was backed by 1,000-plus signatures.
Luke Zitwal, from Murray, will be at the Capitol at 2 p.m. in the Rotunda and then afterward will go door to door asking lawmakers once again for their support.
In this year's round of grading by the WildEarth Guardians, Utah with its C- was not at the top of the pack like Arizona with a B grade, but it did not outright flunk like Nebraska and North Dakota.
The state received a B grade for its monitoring efforts, but a D in its efforts to control the plague. The state is home to the Utah prairie dog, which is listed as "threatened" on the Endangered Species Act's list.
Bumping that status to "endangered" is one of several steps the group says government agencies should take to enhance protections. Utah policymakers and wildlife officials, however, have been opposed to that, asserting protections in place are adequate.