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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Paul Zitting, right, speaks with Rep. Tim Cosgrove's aide, Garrison Burton, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. Paul and his brother, Luke, center, are attempting to push a bill that would make Feb. 2 Prairie Dog Day.

SALT LAKE CITY — 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 Ground Hog Day Wednesday, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians released its annual "Report From the Burrow — Forecast of the Prairie Dog."  The report grades federal agencies and 12 Western states in seven categories for protections afforded for what's been described as a "keystone" species critical to sustaining the ecosystem of the grasslands and prairie.

The categories in the grading are modeled after criteria used to determine eligibility for protection under the Endangered Species Act and 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 Ground Hog 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."

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 three species of prairie dogs, including the Utah prairie dog which is listed as "threatened" on the Endangered Species Act's list.

That designation has been controversial enough — creating development problems in prairie dog habitat — but the group said an even higher level of protection should be given the animal.

It is that fear that is helping to shape conservation efforts by the state's Division of Wildlife Resources, which has partnered with federal agencies and the Paiute Indian Tribe in the living trapping and removal of the rodents from the Cedar Ridge Municipal Golf Course and nearby tribal lands.

The burrowing colonies have proven to be persistent problem for golfers because they tear up the course with their dens and make ongoing maintenance a nightmare for groundskeepers. In another instance, the animals had to be relocated from a cemetery because their digging was toppling headstones. In a tribal burial area where remains where interred without coffins, the animals rooted out bones.

Mike Styler, the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, has told state policymakers that Utah should avoid at all costs any elevated listing of the Utah prairie dog — and should work hard to get them removed from protected status.

The report said a governor's committee is pushing for genetic testing of the Utah prairie dog to assert they are, in fact, a white-tailed prairie dog and not federally protected.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com