Forest Service Expands Shooting Closure in Conata Basin

Release Date: Jul 23, 2012

Contact(s): Steve Lenzo, Acting Forest Supervisor, 308-432-0300

The Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands Deputy Supervisor, Steve Lenzo, announced expansion of a 1998 shooting closure to include all black-footed ferret management areas located on the Wall Ranger District of Buffalo Gap National Grassland.  The new additions are located in three main areas:

  1. The area around Scenic, SD,  north of Badlands National Park
  2. The Steer Pasture Complex located north of Badlands National Park between Highway 240 and Forest System Road 7116
  3. The area West of Interior, SD

Expansion of the current shooting closure is necessary to protect habitat for the black-footed ferret, a federally endangered species.  All closure areas were specifically designated as black-footed ferret reintroduction habitat in the Nebraska National Forests & Grassland’s 2001 Land and Resource Management Plan, including the 2008 Amendment that allows closure without formal comment periods due to changed conditions.   

Epizootic plague, the main factor leading to changed conditions, emerged in Conata Basin in 2008, and has resulted in a massive reduction in habitat and corresponding decline in black-footed ferret populations.  In 2007 Conata Basin was one of the most successful black-footed ferret sites in North America with a population of 335 animals, but 2011 numbers have declined to only 72 animals.

The existing prairie dog shooting closure, in effect since 1998, totals 60,670 acres.  Even as today’s newly expanded closure adds 18,755 acres, it is important to note that due to effects of plague, remaining prairie dog towns are widely scattered and actually occupy less than 1,000 acres within the expanded closure.

Additionally, the Wall Ranger District has been selected as a scientific research area for efforts to develop an oral sylvatic plague vaccine.  This three-year, field test trial is being done with the National Wildlife Health Center, USGS, and the University of Wisconsin with the intent to halt black-footed ferret extinction, and potential human illness or fatalities in regions where prairie dogs reside.  Prairie dog colonies selected for research will be closed to shooting throughout the field trial period. 

Announcing the shooting closure expansion Lenzo said, “I’m authorizing this action only after careful consideration and discussions with the South Dakota Departments of Agriculture and Game & Fish, and also with recreational sports shooting groups including the National Rifle Association, Varmint Hunters and the 40 organizations represented by the Shooting Sportsmen Round Table.  Because of the extensive impact plague has had on black-footed ferrets, our responsibilities require action to protect remaining habitat while we concurrently provide research conditions to develop an effective vaccine.”

The Forest Service recognizes the recreational and economic value of sport shooting on public lands.  Approximately 8,000 acres remain open for recreational prairie dog shooting, and more than one million acres remain open to recreational sport shooting on the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands.

The closure is immediately effective and will be enforced.