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HELENA — The state wildlife agency plans to move about 150 white-tailed prairie dogs in Montana's sensitive population, to save them from a highway construction project near Wyoming.

A decision this week from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks authorizes relocating three of Montana's 10 active colonies of white-tailed prairie dogs, all of which are in Carbon County. The agency plans to trap the squirrel-like rodents this summer and move them to federal land, so they will be spared harm from the widening of Montana 72 southwest of Billings.

White-tailed prairie dogs are classified as a "species of concern" in Montana. The 10 colonies inhabit about 250 acres in the state, down roughly two-thirds from their acreage in the 1970s, when there were 15 colonies. Fish, Wildlife and Parks attributes the decline to disease and the conversion of habitat for agriculture or other uses.

White-tailed prairie dogs contribute to prey and habitat for eagles, hawks, black-footed ferrets and other wildlife.

The prairie dogs to be moved are a significant part of Montana's population, said Allison Puchniak, a native species biologist for the wildlife agency. Puchniak said Thursday that she did not have a figure for the state's total population.

The relocation authorized Tuesday by Fish, Wildlife and Parks' regional director in Billings is subject to appeal for 30 days. In May, that agency and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released an environmental assessment of the proposed relocation.

Plans call for the prairie dogs to be placed on BLM land. An administrator in the federal bureau signed off on the project Tuesday.

The BLM relocation sites being considered are within about 25 miles of the prairie dogs' present location on private land and state highway rights of way, Puchniak said.

The highway construction involves widening and realigning about 10 miles of Montana 72 between the Wyoming border and the Belfry area. Construction was planned for this summer but has been put off for budget reasons and is likely in 2007, said Charity Watt Levis, spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Transportation.

Prairie dogs exist only in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service says that besides Montana, states with white-tailed prairie dogs are Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, with Wyoming having the largest groups. The black-tailed prairie dog, also a species of concern in Montana, is present in 10 states plus parts of Canada and Mexico.

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