Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
February 12, 2000 - Issue 03

Prairie Dog Protection
By Vicki Lockard

The U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service has said that the black-tailed prairie dog deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act but that there are other plants and animals in greater need of the agency's resources. The agency is adding the prairie dog to its list of candidates for threatened status and will review it annually.

Although some land owners see the prairie dog as a pest, others view it as an important grassland species. One reason that it is in danger is that some land owners control the population with poison and by shooting. Because of the USFW's statements, some states are now adopting conservation efforts to protect the prairie dog.

Most prairie dog colonies are small, less than 100 acres and are not close to other colonies. There are only seven large colonies left in North America. Four of these are on tribal lands--three in South Dakota and one in Montana. Because the colonies are so isolated, it is hard for them to repopulate.

Wildlife groups list several ways to protect the species and to keep it from the endangered list:

  • develop conservation plans that set and achieve clear population objectives and support healthy grassland ecosystems;
  • reclassify prairie dogs from pests to wildlife;
  • adopt and enforce regulations on shooting of prairie dogs once the species is recovered;
  • develop inventory and monitoring programs;
  • support research on sylvatic plaque ( an epidemic that kills whole colonies of prairie dogs ).

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Facts

The black-tailed prairie dog is a large, burrowing, ground squirrel belonging to a group of four other prairie dog species found only in North America. The black-tailed prairie dog is the most abundant and widely distributed prairie dog.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are a yellowish tan on the back and lighter on the belly. They have a short tail that is tipped with black. Their ears are short and an average adult weighs about two pounds. Prairie dogs are active only during daylight hours and spend a lot of time feeding and socializing.

Colonies or "towns" are established in areas that have been heavily grazed by cattle. Since they do not like tall grass, they will choose a site which has little vegetation. Here, the prairie dog feels secure and able to see predators coming from a long distance. Burrows are usually quite visible because of the large mound of dirt around the entrance. Mounds provide both a vantage point and protection from flooding.

Forbs are preferred over grasses for food so competition with cattle is still questionable. Prairie dogs will, however, clip off many grass species for better visibility, adding to the denuded look of a town.

Prairie dog tunnels extend downward from 3-10 feet and then horizontally for another 10-15 feet. These systems are arranged so that wind blows through and provides ventilation to their homes. Several tunnels are excavated from the main tunnel to provide nesting areas and places to rest and avoid the hotter part of summer days. Prairie dogs also use these tunnels during the winter to escape bad weather and the cold. They do not hibernate like the true ground squirrels, but do remain dormant in the nest during the peak of winter. On nice days, they can be seen on the surface.

Prairie dogs mate from early March to early April. A month later, 4-6 young are born. In 5-6 weeks, the pups come above ground and can forage on green vegetation. By the end of the summer, they have almost reached adult size. Adults in the wild seldom live over four years.

Only about 1 percent of the habitat remains of what was historically prairie dog town. Breaking native ground for farming and poisoning to eliminate competition for cattle grazing has taken its toll. The problem is that many other wildlife species also thrive on the presence of prairie dog towns. The black-footed ferret, which once preyed solely on prairie dogs, has vanished. Other species such as the badger, coyote, eagle, and burrowing owl are also negatively effected by the loss of a food source and living quarters. Hunting is legal for this species but does not harm a population. If anything, it keeps present towns from expanding so far that landowners want to eliminate them entirely.

Prairie Dogs (DesertUSA)
Prairie Dogs @
NWF - Saving Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs - Links

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