Kylie Paul, Rockies & Plains Representative
Walking through a healthy prairie dog colony is a noisy affair. Alarm calls from many individuals alert the colony to an invader’s presence. Three of us, Defenders’ Rockies and Plains field staff from Missoula, heard this sound often during our trip to Montana’s Milk River Basin last week, in search of the often maligned but critically important burrowing rodent known as the black-tailed prairie dog.
Besides the fact that they are as adorable as they are fascinating, prairie dogs happen to be important to a host of other plains-dwelling wildlife. They are a key prey species for the ferruginous hawk, the American badger, and most notably, the federally endangered black-footed ferret. Their extensive burrow systems also provide shelter for the burrowing owl, the tiger salamander, the western rattlesnake, and of course the black-footed ferret. Finally, the short-clipped vegetation in their colonies provides important habitat for the mountain plover and other grassland birds.
Prairie dogs’ invaluable role in grassland ecosystems is what brought us to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes. Our job was to map prairie dog colonies and identify the amount of suitable habitat as part of a possible effort to reintroduce black-footed ferrets. Fort Belknap was one of the early recovery sites for black-footed ferrets, when they were reintroduced to prairie dog colonies in 1997.
Black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dog colonies for their survival. But in many areas across the West, agricultural producers have viewed prairie dogs as pests. As a result, prairie dogs have faced widespread extermination for more than a century. They also face another major problem. Prairie dog numbers have plummeted as a result of sylvatic plague (yes, plague!) outbreaks that have decimated many of the once-thriving prairie dog colonies at Fort Belknap and across the West. Plague is not endemic to North America but was brought here by rodents stowed away on ships in the early 1900s. Today, plague continues to have negative cascading effects on wildlife populations.
Currently, we are collaborating with tribal wildlife officials and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to identify prairie dog strongholds at Fort Belknap and take measures to protect them from future plague outbreaks. If we find enough acres of prairie dog colonies and protect them from plague, this area could once again have hope for restoring a new population of ferrets via ferret reintroduction. With another population of ferrets in the wild, the species has a better chance of recovery. Alongside WWF and students from Montana State University and Aaniiih Nakoda College, we met with the Tribes’ fish and wildlife director to plan the prairie dog mapping project. The mapping effort focused on prairie dog colonies within the Tribes’ buffalo reserve. Fort Belknap has been home to a herd of bison since the 1970s, and Defenders is working with the Tribes to restore a new herd of wild bison from Yellowstone.
Over the course of two long days, working against petulant weather and an excess of mud, Defenders helped map over 500 acres of active prairie dog colonies within the bison range on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Additional mapping is slated for later this summer. The good news is that prairie dog colonies appear to be doing relatively well at Fort Belknap. With the Tribes’ efforts and a little bit of luck, the colonies will continue to grow and Fort Belknap will see the return of a robust black-footed ferret population.
We took a camera along as we mapped – here are some photos from the trip: