Prairie dogs, © Rob Englehardt

A Prairie Dog “Ranch”

To most people in the west, the notion that we would one day have to grow a herd of prairie dogs just as we do cattle or sheep seems almost outlandish. Prairie dogs seem to just show up, sometimes where they are least expected – from vacant lots in suburban neighborhoods to the median strips of highways. But their true homes are within the vast expanse of western grasslands. Ranchers have spent the better part of the last 100 years complaining so bitterly about them because of the perceived competition with livestock for grass that the federal (and sometimes even state and local) government has provided funding to poison them. Over the past century, this effort killed off over 100 million acres of prairie dog colonies, totaling maybe a billion individuals – one of the largest mass extermination campaigns against wildlife ever conducted.

Like the bison, prairie dogs are grassland keystone engineers. Their presence shaped the ecology of the Great Plains and interior mountain grasslands. Yet they were largely eradicated to make way for crops and cattle. Prairie dogs that remain today are a shadow of their former abundance. Increasingly, prairie dogs are also under siege from newer threats. Plague, a bacterial disease more famous as the black death of the middle ages, is now ubiquitous in the environment of the prairie dog. Without immunity from this disease that was introduced to North America around 1900, prairie dog populations can completely die out in some areas when outbreaks occur. Even if the colony survives, some level of infection usually remains, impacting their survival and reproduction.

Prairie Dogs, © Scott Carr / National Geographic StockSo despite the impression that prairie dogs seem to be everywhere, a few highly visible colonies scattered over a large landscape are a far cry from the prairie dog ecosystem of old. That ecosystem – created by hundreds of millions of prairie dogs – once supported large numbers of birds, amphibian, reptiles, insects and mammals, including black-footed ferrets, one of North America’s most endangered mammals. The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America (common pet ferrets are the domesticated version of a ferret species from Europe). They can only survive among thousands of acres of prairie dog colonies, and those colonies need to be arranged closely together in large, contiguous blocks. Restoring prairie dogs is the first building block to reviving the once-vibrant grasslands of central North America. Which brings us to the American Prairie Reserve (APR) in northeastern Montana.

APR is buying private ranchlands with the express purpose of managing them primarily for wildlife, returning millions of acres to grassland habitat. We came to them with a proposal: Because prairie dogs need a boost, can we try some techniques to grow the small colonies on the Reserve to the kind of large complexes needed to replicate the historic colonies that once blanketed the grasslands? APR enthusiastically responded “Yes!”

So in June, Jonathan Proctor and I, along with Defenders’ volunteer Curt Freese (an early co-founder of the Reserve along with myself) traveled to the Reserve to begin the effort to expand prairie dog colonies. We enlisted the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the US, which brings extensive experience in moving prairie dogs out of the way of big development projects, and has developed techniques to build artificial temporary “homes” for prairie dogs. The final partner in the project was a team of volunteers with the nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. These sturdy young biologists (Caroline Hedin, Rachel Karlov, Grace Ellison, Brady Koss, Nathan Collier, and crew boss Ryan Rock) work closely with the Reserve on conservation projects through APR’s Landmark citizen science program.

Our goals were threefold. First, we wanted to make new habitat more prairie dog friendly, so, we cut down greasewood brush and mowed tall grass in and around a small existing prairie dog colony to encourage expansion and improve survival. Prairie dogs avoid areas with these kinds of plants because they provide cover for predators to hide in. The team cleared a total of 50 acres – that’s a lot more room for prairie dogs!

Next, we wanted to encourage prairie dogs to move into this new area by giving them a place to escape. Prairie dogs are world class diggers, but it’s not so easy to start a new burrow from scratch while keeping an eye out for predators. So we installed 45 artificial “nest boxes”—a ready-made escape tunnel—throughout the new habitat. If we could get them to spread out a bit more, it would encourage the colony to grow. APR staff reported less than a week later that that is exactly what happened: Prairie dogs are already using the new homes and grazing in the short grass!

Lastly, we wanted to protect the growing colony from plague. While exciting advances in managing this disease in wild populations are on the horizon, the current best practice is to tediously go to every burrow in a colony and spritz a small dose of insecticide to kill the fleas that carry plague. So that’s exactly what we did, dusting a total of 12,000 burrows! As prairie dogs come and go from the burrow, they rub on the flea powder and, much like the flea collar on a dog or cat, fleas are controlled. In total, we expanded and protected more than 400 acres of prairie dog colonies!

So American Prairie Reserve, along with its bison restoration, stream restoration, and grassland restoration, is now overseeing a growing network of prairie dog colonies, and Defenders is happy to be a partner. Our success here is crucial—if the techniques at APR encourage prairie dog colonies to grow and expand, we can use the same methods in restoration efforts throughout the prairie dog’s range, restoring this key element of our native grasslands. As we saw, it’s a lot of work restoring prairie dog habitat – but it’s worth it. In time, we may see more “prairie dog wranglers” bellying up to western bars after a long day in the tractor mower saddle…at least we can hope.

A Keystone Species

Through their colonies’ networks of burrows and tunnels, prairie dogs create islands of habitat that can benefit 150 other species, from owls to amphibians.

Learn More »

14 Responses to “A Prairie Dog “Ranch””

  1. Dori Aravis

    A prairie dog colony in Fort Collins, Colorado is going to be wiped out for another micro brewery. I would love this not to happen, but don’t know how to stop it. Can you help?

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Dori, we encourage you to work with local officials (city, county) and contact the Prairie Dog Coalition, http://www.humanesociety.org/…/cont…/contact-pdc.html…. They could possibly relocate the prairie dogs to a conflict-free location.Best of luck!

  2. Connie

    I admire the Love an respect for all our animal
    Thank you so much. I enjoy watching. All animals and studying their behaviors. Humans have been missing a lot if they haven’t observed their beauty.

  3. Julie

    I am a vet tech and I love all animals. I love to watch the prairie dogs in their natural habitat and suddenly, my city of Broomfield, wipes out several colonies.
    How does a human sleep at night after doing that. I know that they can overtake an area and continue to grow but there has to be another answer.
    Wouldn’t it be great if a bunch of Veterinarians got together and atleast neutered a bunch of the males to help keep the population down?
    Maybe thats not the answer long term but I would sure think that it would help.

  4. Olde Scott

    As a retired wildlife biologist, I am watching with great interest both the Prairie Dog colony reintro here in SE AZ as well as the Black-footed Ferret reinter in NW AZ. If things go well in the near future we may see these two species once again living a predator/prey relationship on a still working cattle ranch by Sonoita AZ.

  5. marsha

    I have mixed feelings when animal lovers (and I am one) try to reintroduce a species that has been viciously wiped out by the residents of the area. The haters, who still live around your refuge will poison the perimeters of your property, shoot from those edges, do whatever horrid thing they can to kill the poor animals. There are many published horror stories about prairie dog haters bragging about their “fun” killing sprees. Are you prepared to defend the new colonies against these killers?

  6. Kathleen Donnafield

    As a kid….we had a prairie dog as a pet (NEVER, EVER take these little guys out of their natural habitat to keep as pets) and they are incredibly smart, social, loyal little animals. I gained so much knowledge about these amazing little creatures just in having one in our home and each time a colony is wiped out by developers, I am heartbroken. We need to do far more to protect these critters and I am so happy that there are such strong advocacy groups who fight to save these prairie dogs as well as expand their habitat!

  7. Cindy Guarnieri

    We must do everything we can to stop people from poisoning or cruelly having fun shooting these little critters. The prairie dogs have been blamed for decades at ruining the landscape. We now know, in fact, that they are a great necessity to our landscape, our bio-diversity and our ecology. They benefit many of the other species of animals, even huge ones like the Bison. These little animals are so very vital to Planet Earth and its inhabitants. And they are so adorable to watch!

  8. Susanna

    I absolutely love prairie dogs! They are very social and interesting animals. I have heard people complaining that they “ruin the grounds”, hollow out the ground for cattle and horses to step onto their caves and break their legs. This was used as a justification for horrific persecution and killings of entire families with the most inhumane methods and shooting competitions. I’m originally from Europe; we have in some larger cities a very big pigeon population and their droppings started to damage historical buildings and statues. Those cities then started to feed the birds bird seed that had birth control medication added to it; the populations declined starting with the next generation and the destructive problems were decimated. If the farmers’ complaints are legitimate, wouldn’t this be a humane solution for those alleged “exploding” populations? Again, I’m not a native to these areas and was ridiculed and laughed at by locals for adoring those smart animals on my recent visit to Colorado and Wyoming. What I saw and was told was abhorrent. People were shooting at and running prairie dogs over deliberately with their cars! I’m happy to read that there are good people out there who share my concerns and love for animals. Would birth control/ population control be a solution?

  9. ISABELLA

    Every single animals & mother nature, are in danger, we are horrible creatures
    now there is law in many countries, legal to marry animals, or just casual sex. birth control, spay & neuter, Amen, to those the care, and love animals. BILLIONS AND BILLIONS OF HOMELESS DOGS, ALL OVER THE WORLDHIT BY CARS, NO HOME. CHINA, BOILS, COOKS, SKINNING THEM ALIVE.

  10. Teresa Bumgarner

    Have studied the prairie dogs for years. They are such an intelligent animal and they certainly deserve all the help they can get to protect them. They are a social family oriented animal, loving, smart, and have a great bond with one another to protect their families. If you are ever fortunate enough to be around one – they will bond so quickly with you, be a part of family and act as your child. I am so glad that finally steps are being taken to help them. First it would be a great loss to lose such an incredible animal and second a great loss for the environment. My gratitude and thanks go out to all that are trying to help them in their struggle to survive. I know it has to be hard to undertake when our government allows poisoning and shooting of these sweet animals.

  11. Eric Rechel

    Let’s think about PD and the plague. The “plague” hit Europe in 1356-1359. It was all over Europe, even Spain. The plague is transmitted by fleas. The plague bacteria never died out, it just became less virulent. There were plague bacteria all over Europe after 1359, just in a form that was not so virulent, it’s infection just made people a sick like a lot of bacteria. After a 100 years or so the people and animals built up natural defenses, like we do today.
    In 1492 the Spaniards brought over horses and other animals. During the next 400 years they brought over lots of animals and they had fleas which had the plague. These fleas, with the plague spread all over Mexico and the entire continent. Prairie dogs have had the plague for 100s of years.

    • Marianne

      Precisely……we need flea control !!! NOT prairie dog elimination…!!!

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