Prairie dogs are small and squirrelly, but they have outsized influence on the health of their entire ecosystem. Not only do they help turn over the sun-baked soil of the prairie to keep grasses growing, but they’re also an important food source for at least a half dozen species—many of which are imperiled due to habitat loss. Recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret, in particular, is entirely dependent on restoring large prairie dog communities in at least a few places across the Great Plains.
This summer, Defenders’ Rocky Mountain Representative Jonathan Proctor helped move hundreds of prairie dogs in Wyoming from the edge of Thunder Basin National Grassland, where they were threatened with poisoning, to an interior section of the Grassland where they will be fully protected from poisoning and shooting.
Here’s Jonathan explaining the importance of protecting prairie dogs and their habitat in this excellent article from New West on the Thunder Basin relocation project:
And while some see that as plenty of space for a dirt-slinging little varmint, the loss of a keystone species such as the prairie dog has lasting repercussions.
As the prairie dogs go, so do the species that rely on them, including eagles, badgers, weasels, mountain plovers, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. They’re part of the complexity that is the grassland web. Take one piece out, even a piece as small as a prairie dog, and the rest suffer.
“It was a sea of life. It was a city. For wildlife this was New York City,” says Jonathan Proctor, surveying the grassland. Proctor, who has spent many years on this issue, is the Rocky Mountain region representative for the Defenders of Wildlife. “The loss of the prairie dog was the loss of all of that. Some still remain, but nothing like it was. It was impressive by any standard.”