To many people, the prairie dog should really be called the "prairie rat." The rodent's nothing but trouble.

Besides eating grass earmarked for cows, prairie dogs also undermine fence posts and chew into underground power and phone lines. And because the critter, like other rodents, sometimes carries fleas infected with bubonic plague, some consider it a health menace.

"The level of hate for this species even surpasses that for wolves," said Jonathan Proctor of the Predator Project, a conservation group.

Nevertheless, Proctor's group is one of several conservation organizations that petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this spring to consider listing the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species.

"Prairie dog populations have declined by 99 percent, and there is no mechanism in place to stop further declines," said Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, another petitioner.

However, because millions of the rodents still remain and bug ranchers, the petition has left many Westerners scratching their heads. "I think this whole prairie dog thing is part of the big conspiracy by the National Wildlife Federation to depopulate the West," said rancher Jim Darlington of New Castle, Wyo.

Farming, development and a decades-long eradication program funded by government money have reduced the black-tailed prairie dog's habitat to less than 1 percent of its historical territory--from 98 million acres, an area larger than Montana, to about 700,000 acres.

According to a recent unpublished government report, the poisoning continues. From 1990 to 1994, Wildlife Services (formerly known as Animal Damage Control) sold, distributed, used or supervised the use of enough poison to kill about 4.7 million prairie dogs on 172,000 acres. The poisoning occurred while dogs were succumbing to sylvatic plague--the rodent version of bubonic plague.

Sport shooting of prairie dogs has also become a big industry in many rural communities. Some ranchers charge shooters for access to "dog towns" on private property, while other entrepreneurs outfit and guide shooters on public lands.

"They usually shoot from 250 to 500 rounds in a day," said Dan Stier, a hunting guide from Humboldt, S.D. "They hit a prairie dog about 30 percent of the time. It's not a hunt per se. It tests one's shooting ability."

Why the wholesale animosity? Some say it began with faulty scientific observations.

In 1924, researchers W.P. Taylor and J.V.G. Loftfield described the prairie dog as "one of the most injurious rodents of the Southwest and plains regions" because it "removed vegetation in its entirety from the vicinity of its home."

That report, printed in the U.S. Agriculture Bulletin, fueled a wave of eradication programs that poisoned 20 million acres of prairie dog towns, which are communities of prairie dogs. Add to that the millions of acres plowed under by homesteaders, as well as the species's periodic susceptibility to plague, and 99 percent of the historical population, estimated at 5 billion, is now gone.

However, Craig Knowles, an expert in Northern Plains ecology, says the animal got a bum rap. "Even though prairie dog towns appear to be desolate, they are full of plant life," he said. "The animal's digging activity disturbs the soil, and weedy plants take over, much like in a cultivated field. When closely cropped, these plants become higher in protein and nitrogen content and are sought out by cattle, bison, antelope and elk."

Although the scientific information shows that prairie dogs do not ruin the range for livestock, it has been a hard sell to ranchers. "Contrary to what the do-gooders say, I don't see any increase in the amount of forage," Darlington said. "All I see is bare ground and erosion."

The black-tailed prairie dog is the cornerstone of prairie ecology, Knowles said. He first noted the close association other animals maintain with prairie dogs when he surveyed mountain plovers at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana.

Already a threatened species, the mountain plover inhabits areas short of vegetation where insects congregate. The bird was once so common that a hunter recorded shooting 126 mountain plovers in one day. Today, biologists estimate that 4,300 to 5,600 plovers remain. About 90 percent of mountain plover sightings occur in prairie dog towns, said Knowles.

The black-footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals on earth, eats nothing but prairie dogs and avoids its own predators by living in prairie dog burrows. Many of the handful of prairie dog complexes large enough to support ferret reintroductions are on federal or Indian lands.

Burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, swift foxes and golden eagles also have declined over the decades with the decrease in prairie dogs.

Altogether, more than 165 species of animals and insects either eat prairie dogs, live in their burrows, graze the clipped vegetation or catch insects that thrive around the dog towns.

In years past, land management agencies have ignored the plight of the prairie dog.

"Endangered species protection in the Great Plains is way behind the rest of the country," said John Sidle, the Forest Service's threatened-and-endangered-species coordinator for the Great Plains. "Unlike the Pacific Northwest (where the spotted owl was listed and, later, several salmon stocks) we've never bitten the bullet as far as protecting a broadly distributed terrestrial prairie species."

But the situation may soon change.

This summer, the Forest Service, which administers the National Grasslands, released updated draft management plans for the species. Baseline recommendations would sharply curtail poisoning and may also regulate hunting. If the best scenario for the black-tailed prairie dog is approved, acreage allotted to dog towns could increase from less than 1 percent to almost 10 percent at some grasslands in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Western states also are scurrying to come up with conservation strategies to avoid the restrictions that would be imposed by a threatened-species listing. Montana will be the first to release a draft strategy later this summer. It will most likely propose purchasing conservation easements from landowners to protect prairie dog towns on private land, as well as changing the legal status of the species from a pest to a small fur bearer to control hunting.

Conservationists say the current prairie dog ecosystem is too fragmented, with many dog towns too far from one another, to guarantee survival. The key to guaranteeing the future of the species is to rebuild large complexes on public lands, according to Proctor.

"If we act now on public lands, private landowners will not be faced with endangered restrictions," he said.

"And if the agencies pushed for protecting a 10 percent minimum of suitable prairie dog habitat on public lands where it historically occurred, then we wouldn't need a lawsuit."