Prairie Dogs, © Scott Carr / National Geographic Stock

Volunteers Protect a Colorado Prairie Dog Colony

Caitlin Balch-Burnett, Outreach Representative, Colorado

This fall, Defenders of Wildlife volunteers joined me and several wildlife biologists from Boulder County Parks and Open Space to protect an important prairie dog colony near Longmont, Colorado.

The black-tailed prairie dog is a keystone species. Its role in the Great Plains ecosystem is similar to a keystone in an arch: the ecosystem – like the arch – will collapse without it. Black-tailed prairie dog colonies provide abundant food, shelter and habitat for dozens of other species of wildlife such as hawks, eagles, foxes, coyotes, snakes, pronghorn, bison and black-footed ferrets. At least nine wildlife species directly depend on black-tailed prairie dogs for their survival, and dozens more benefit from prairie dogs and the habitat they create.

Prairie dogs even help aerate and fertilize the soil when they dig and maintain their burrows. At the same time, their constant clipping of vegetation allows a greater diversity of plants to thrive, which leads to greater wildlife diversity in and around colonies. Additionally, black-tailed prairie dogs help maintain grasslands by preventing the encroachment of woody shrubs.

Prairie Dog Project Colorado

A biologist from Boulder County Parks and Open Space works on the “apron” to deter the prairie dogs from climbing over or borrowing under the fence. (Credit: Caitlin Balch-Burnett, Defenders of Wildlife)

Defenders volunteers helped put up a 4-foot-tall chain link fence at Casa Vista, a Boulder County Parks and Open Space property, to serve as a barrier to prevent the prairie dogs from expanding their colony into nearby agricultural areas and trail corridors where they are not allowed due to local regulations and agreements. Once the volunteers erected the chain link fence, they attached chicken wire to the inside of it to create a 3-foot “apron” where the ground and the fencing meet to deter the prairie dogs from climbing over or burrowing under the fence.

It is important to Boulder County Parks and Open Space and other wildlife enthusiasts that this prairie dog population remains healthy, as they are a vital part of the local ecosystem, which includes a nearby bald eagle nest. By keeping this particular population in a pairie dog-friendly area, we can help this population survive and ensure that they can maintain their important role in this ecosystem.

Thanks again to our fantastic volunteers for helping our Colorado wildlife!

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