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Authors of New Mexico's draft Wildlife Action Plan say the Gunnison's prairie dog is in such dire straits that it is one of several wildlife species in need of immediate conservation measures. A codependent species of the prairie dog, the burrowing owl, is one step down on the priority list, although its populations near Santa Fe are in serious decline due to development.

In all, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish listed 235 "species of greatest conservation need," including dozens of other mammals, birds and amphibians. The Mexican gray wolf, the centerpiece of a decadelong political fight involving ranchers, environmentalists, the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is included in the plan.

The state agency recently issued the 397-page draft, and the public has until Aug. 31 to review and comment on the document. The plan includes about half the number of species listed in a plan issued 11 years ago. A total of 241 were removed from the original list for a variety of reasons, while 24 new ones were added.

The new draft lays out a road map for how the state should manage and protect nongame wildlife species and habitat, but it lacks legal teeth. What the plan does is qualify the state for about $1 million a year in federal money to help protect some wildlife that aren't hunted or fished game species.

Overall, the plan "has a ton of good, valuable information," said Teresa Seamster, a Sierra Club volunteer who is a member of a team tracking populations of the burrowing owl and the Gunnison's prairie dog. "If you are a researcher or a land manager, you can really dig into this document and find very good citations."

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is more than a year late in issuing the revised Wildlife Action Plan after some people protested an earlier version presented to the State Game Commission. Under federal wildlife grant requirements, states are supposed to redo wildlife action plans every 10 years. The New Mexico agency received an extension from the federal government to complete the new plan.

The U.S. Interior Department began offering wildlife grants to help conserve nongame species beginning in 2002 with an eye toward preventing species from declining to the point that they end up on the federal Endangered Species list. Recovering a species once it has reached that point of decline is expensive and can restrict activity by property owners. Under the federal wildlife grant program, each state has to prepare a plan for conserving wildlife and habitat in order to qualify for some federal grant money.

New Mexico has received nearly $14 million from the program. Those funds have paid for research into at-risk species, restoring riparian areas, buying land and conservation easements along with paying the costs of revising the plan, according to the department.

Wildlife managers have limited funding for nongame species. Most of the state Game and Fish funding comes from license fees and tags for hunters and anglers. The agency focuses that funding on managing game animals and fish.

New Mexico has more than 6,000 animal species scurrying, flying, prowling and hopping around the state.

Only about 1,400 of those species are included on the Biota Information System of New Mexico, also called BISON-M. Of those, only the 235 met the criteria to be included in the Wildlife Action Plan as species that are in the most dire need of protection.

Species were added to the state's list if their populations are declining or vulnerable, if they are native to an area or if they are a keystone species that indicates the overall health of an ecoregion, such as the Chihuahuan Desert or the Southern Rocky Mountains.

Seamster said she is glad the burrowing owl and the Gunnison's prairie dog are still included in the state's Wildlife Action Plan.

"They depend on each other. They are both in decline. They have trouble with habitat decline and habitat degradation," Seamster said. "These are animals that don't go far from their burrows and tend to be in the path of development for houses and roads.

"Once their burrows are disturbed, they tend to move on and not come back. They abandon the area."

The two species are indicators of biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem, similar to much of the other wildlife found on the state's list of those in greatest need of conservation. The burrowing owl eats a variety of bugs, plants and small rodents, helping control those populations. Both the prairie dog and the owl serve as meals for predators.

"Everything dines on prairie dogs. They are sort of a basic part of the food chain for dozens of animals," Seamster said. "If you get rid of these animals because of loss of habitat, then you get something that's highly invasive. Instead of having a range of rodents and plants, you will have only two or three. When losing any predator, like owls, in the food chain, then the competition gets tilted."

"When they disappear, if they disappear, that whole ecosystem is disappearing," Seamster said.

With the state's continuing push to increase tourism as an economic driver, wildlife should be a treasure the state doesn't forget, she said. "People come to New Mexico because we have some original species and some original landscapes that have changed little for thousands of years," she said. "It isn't easy to make a living here, but species carve out a niche and may only survive in one small area. That's what makes New Mexico such a great place."

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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