By Zaylah Pearson-Good
Peeking out from the safety of their dens, reaching high for a morning stretch, or enjoying a hug from a companion, prairie dogs can be a fun wildlife spotting. These charismatic creatures are even more interesting than many of us know due to their high sociability and value to the grassland habitats in which they live. As master communicators, prairie dogs can relay danger to one another through a variety of distinct high-pitched calls. This alarm system is so advanced that information about a predator’s color, speed/pace, shape, and size can all be delivered in one series of squeaks. Living in close-knit colonies, prairie dogs are also exceptional housekeepers. These small rodents build complex tunnels that are divided into distinct quarters for sleeping, defecating, looking after offspring, and food collection.
Perhaps prairie dogs’ most important quality, however, is their contribution to the environment. Although weighing just a few pounds, these fluffy rodents play a huge role in the health, structure, and function of grassland ecosystems. In turn, if the species was removed from their habitat, the ecosystem would be drastically altered. For these reasons, prairie dogs are considered keystone species. It has been estimated that prairie dog colonies benefit roughly 150 other species by offering a variety of ecosystem services. In Colorado, at least 9 species have been identified that specifically depend on the prairie dog for their survival.
Prairie Dogs Support Grassland Ecosystems in Many Ways:
1) Habitat/Shelter: Many grassland species depend on the intricately dug tunnels that prairie dogs dig for nesting, sheltering, or escaping predation. The burrowing owl, for example, requires the underground havens dug by prairie dogs or squirrels to nest.
2) Predation: Prairie dogs are an important food source for many predators, including hawks, coyotes, eagles, badgers, bobcats, foxes, and the endangered black-footed ferret. Staggering losses in prairie dogs throughout the past century has been a leading reason for the endangerment of the ferrets. As black-footed ferrets slowly recover from near extinction status, maintaining healthy quantities of their primary food source, prairie dogs, is imperative.
3) Safety: In addition to communicating between each other, the loud alarms set out by prairie dogs alert other species of an approaching predator or other perceived danger.
4) Healthy Grasslands: Prairie dogs fertilize, till, and aerate soil, through their everyday defecation and digging. These activities influence soil chemistry and produce healthier, more productive grassland ecosystems. This is especially notable as grassland ecosystems are among some of the most endangered landscapes on the planet and also support many endangered species.
5) Biodiversity: By increasing soil health and distributing seeds, prairie dogs promote biodiversity among plant and animal species. In particular, the abundance and health of major herbivores, such as bison and elk, are greatly linked to the presence of prairie dog colonies.
The War against Prairie Dogs
Unfortunately, prairie dogs have historically not been given the respect that they deserve. For many decades, these helpful rodents have been aggressively hunted, poisoned, and disregarded as “pests.” Landowners argue that prairie dog tunnels destroy their property and threaten the health of their livestock. Yet these claims are often overdramatized and do not outweigh the benefits of having prairie dogs on a landscape.As a result, hunting prairie dogs has been encouraged in many circles, even so as a recreational activity.
To complicate the matter, since the 1900s, the species has been dying off at alarming rates due to the introduction of the sylvatic plague. Transmitted by flea bites, this disease has a high mortality rate in prairie dogs (up to 90%). It is estimated that disease and extermination efforts combined are responsible for a near 95% decrease in populations. This is a devastating statistic considering how fragile grassland ecosystems already are. Habitat fragmentation/loss and urbanization also put immense pressure on the species, variables that seem to only be amplifying.
If you are a property owner and absolutely do not want prairie dogs in your space, please consider a nonlethal option. For example, try growing tall grasses along your properties parameter which can deter the prairie dogs from meandering into areas where they are unwelcome. Installing fencing is another possible solution. Lastly, check out this list on relocation facts from Colorado Parks and Wildlife: https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/SOC-Black-tailedPrairieDogRelocationFacts.aspx
Ranging from Canada to northern Mexico, five species of prairie dog inhabit North America. Of the total, three species are native to Colorado: black-tailed, Gunnison’s, and white-tailed. Gunnison’s prairie dogs live in the San Luis Valley and can be seen in the sparsely vegetated shrublands of the valley floor. Keep an eye out as you drive, since prairie dogs have a habit of hanging out near the roadside and attempting to cross major highways and streets. Do local ecology a favor; help protect this special keystone species!