Educational Series: Long Targeted for Extermination, Prairie Dogs Need Our Help

By Nick Engelfried
Imagine a species that lives in towns of hundreds or thousands of individuals; that changes the surrounding landscape in profound ways; and in which individuals communicate with one another using a complex spoken language. This description may sound like it refers to human beings–but it also applies to prairie dogs, small ground squirrels that maintain some of the animal world’s most complex social systems. Unfortunately, some of the very qualities that make prairie dogs similar to us have also put them in conflict with humans, leading to vast numbers being wiped out. By better understanding prairie dogs, we can come to appreciate them for what they are: important members of the ecological communities where they live, who deserve our help and protection.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers in North America, millions of prairie dogs thrived throughout the drier parts of the continent–including in the Great Plains, where huge prairie dog towns co-existed with vast bison herds and flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons. The largest known prairie dog town ever discovered was home to an estimated four hundred million animals and stretched across 25,000 square miles. Towns provided habitat for many other animals besides prairie dogs, making these underground architects a keystone species. [Burrowing owls, gopher snakes, desert tortoises, and a variety of other animals will use abandoned prairie dog burrows for shelter.

While many animals thrive in habitat created by prairie dogs, others rely on them as a primary food source. Coyotes, bobcats, badgers, snakes, birds of prey, and other predators all feed on prairie dogs, whose natural abundance makes them a stable source of protein in areas where they still thrive. One Plains predator–the black-footed ferret–even evolved to specialize specifically in hunting prairie dogs. Over 90% of the ferret’s diet consists of prairie dogs, and an individual ferret can consume 100 prairie dogs over the course of a year. It is estimated that in pre-colonial times, millions of black-footed ferrets thrived throughout a region home to many hundreds of millions–perhaps billions–of prairie dogs.

There are actually five prairie dog species: the black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs. Of these, black-tailed prairie dogs make the biggest towns and have the largest range, which historically extended from southern central Canada all the way to northern Mexico. Black-tailed prairie dogs live in towns consisting of hundreds or thousands of burrows and tunnels, with animals in a single a town being organized into smaller family groups known as coteries. Other prairie dog species have somewhat less sophisticated societies; for example, white-tailed prairie dogs are more solitary and do not live in extensive towns. However, all five species have certain things in common. They all dig burrows, all feed on grass or other plant matter, and all hibernate underground during the winter.

It has long been known that black-tailed and some other prairie dogs are highly social animals. However, only relatively recently have scientists discovered just how complex their social interactions are. Prairie dog towns post sentries to look out for predators and give a high-pitched chirp that warns of danger–but the sentry will give different signals depending on the nature of the threat. Researchers have found that Gunnison’s prairie dog sentries give distinct chirps to warn their neighbors about approaching coyotes, domestic dogs, birds of prey, or humans. Prairie dogs in the surrounding area respond accordingly with behaviors designed to evade the specific type of predator.

For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, prairie dogs were hunted by different Indigenous peoples throughout their range in the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest. However, only when white settlers arrived did human actions start to pose an existential threat to prairie dog species. More than almost any other animal in plains and desert ecosystems, prairie dogs transform the landscape around them, mainly by digging their vast networks of underground tunnels. Their burrows help aerate and fertilize the soil, but pose a hazard to cattle and other livestock who can injure a leg by stepping in a prairie dog hole. This has led to the small mammals being persecuted mercilessly.

In addition to being hunted, trapped, and poisoned, prairie dogs saw their habitat shrink as most of the grasslands and prairies were plowed under by settlers and transformed into crop fields. Another blow came in the late 1800s, when rats from European ships inadvertently introduced bubonic plague to North America. Although it affects a variety of mammal species, the plague was particularly devastating among creatures like the black-tailed prairie dog, whose dense populations made it easy for germs to spread from one animal to another. Today, the plague–the same disease that caused the Black Death in Europe–continues to pose a threat to prairie dogs.

While tragic in itself, the decline of prairie dogs also spelled trouble for the larger ecosystem and the vast number of other animal species who rely on them for food or habitat. By the 1970s, the black-footed ferret–which feeds almost exclusively on prairie dogs–was thought to have gone extinct due to the rodents’ decline. Miraculously, in 1981 a rancher discovered a small population of ferrets still clinging to existence in Wyoming, which led to the establishment of a successful captive breeding program. Today, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to protected areas in a handful of Western states, but their wild population still numbers fewer than 400 individuals.

As for prairie dogs themselves, habitat protections and efforts to control the spread of plague have allowed their numbers to begin rebuilding in some parts of their former range. Currently, Utah prairie dogs are classified as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), while Mexican prairie dogs are considered endangered. The other three species–black-tailed, white-tailed, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs–are not listed under the ESA, but their numbers remain far below what they were in pre-colonial times.

So, how to ensure a better future for prairie dogs and the many other animal species who depend on them? First and foremost, U.S. policymakers must begin to prioritize the preservation and restoration of grasslands, one of the country’s most endangered habitat types. Secondly, we must reduce the common perception of prairie dogs as pests, and find ways for ranchers and these important small mammals to co-exist. Finally, other threats to their survival like bubonic plague must be kept under control. For these efforts to succeed, decision makers at the local, state, and federal levels of government must know prairie dog survival is something their constituents support.

The massive prairie dog towns numbering millions of individuals that once covered much of the central part of North America have become a thing of the past–and, sadly, are unlikely to remerge on that scale anytime soon. However, with the right conservation measures and an awareness of the important roles prairie dogs play in local ecosystems, all five species of these intelligent, social rodents can again thrive alongside a host of other animals whose well-being depends on them.

Photo credit: Asiir

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Which prairie dog species makes the largest towns?
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How do prairie dog sentries signal that a predator is coming?
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True or false: Prairie dogs are a member of the squirrel family
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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