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Five Ways the HSUS Prairie Dog Coalition Is Working to Save an Iconic Species

Threatened by disease and development, prairie dogs need our help more than ever

The HSUS Prairie Dog Coalition provides much-needed help to animals threatened by poisoning and development. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS

Prairie dogs may be under a foot tall, but their small statures pack a lot of smarts and personality.

Much like humans’ homes, their intricate warrens have kitchen, bedroom, nursery and bathroom areas. They can describe to each other a person’s size, shape and clothing color. They have different calls for different predators and when danger passes, they give the all-clear “jump yip” by stretching up on their hind legs and chirping, “Ay-yeee! Ay-yee!”—sometimes so energetically they flip over backwards.  

“In many respects, they are like people,” says researcher Con Slobodchikoff. “They live in social groups and spend a lot of time kissing each other.” They play and chase each other and get into family spats. 

Prairie dogs are upstanding citizens as well, building colonies that support more than 150 species and providing ecosystem services in conservation areas throughout their range. Jackrabbits, tiger salamanders, toads and rattlesnakes duck inside their burrows to escape the heat and cold. Swift foxes and burrowing owls raise their young within. And prairie dogs are a main food source for badgers, coyotes, hawks and endangered black-footed ferrets. 

A species under siege

But not everyone appreciates prairie dogs’ uniqueness and role in the fragile prairie. They’re targeted by poisoning campaigns perpetuating myths that grazing cattle frequently trip on their burrow entrances or that prairie dogs and other grazers can't co-exist. Their colonies are bulldozed over for housing developments. Shooting them for sport is a common practice. 

Add in natural threats—plague can wipe out entire colonies in days—and the five species of prairie dogs are under siege. Once spread over 12 western states and Mexico and Canada, today they occupy 2 to 8 percent of their historic ranges, with populations down by 95 percent.

The Prairie Dog Coalition fights for these threatened but critical animals through habitat protection work, relocation projects, conflict prevention and public outreach.

Enter the Prairie Dog Coalition, an HSUS-led group of wildlife biologists, advocates and nonprofits working on multiple fronts to give these once abundant animals a fighting chance at survival.

The big picture: Habitat protection

The Coalition maps the biggest and best prairie dog habitats, then develops protection campaigns, commenting on management plans and helping solve conflicts nonlethally. One of the largest sites, Wyoming’s 18,000-acre Thunder Basin National Grassland, the coalition has helped protect more than 180,000 prairie dogs.  

Home sweet home: Relocation projects

When prairie dog colonies are threatened with poisoning or development, the Prairie Dog Coalition can swing into action to move them out of harm’s way. Team members must first labor to find just the right home: wide-open habitat, rich with native prairie grasses and flowering plants but not in conflict with land use—a combination that is hard to come by. The Coalition makes it a priority to train as many land and wildlife managers on the latest non-lethal management techniques for prairie dogs.

  • Prairie dogs are often targeted and poisoned by those who consider them a threat to grass-grazing cattle. Photo by Ghia Zalewa/The HSUS

  • Prairie dogs create burrows used by many prairie animals, including owls, snakes and toads. Photo by iStockphoto

  • Black-footed ferrets are largely endangered because of the decimation of the prairie dog. Photo by Wendy Shattil/Alamy

  • Prairie dogs' grazing creates a healthy mosaic of plant species. Photo by iStockphoto

  • The HSUS Prairie Dog Coalition relocates prairie dogs whose habitats are threatened or destroyed. Photo by Ruthanne Johnson/The HSUS

  • Members of the HSUS Prairie Dog Coalition use foam to gently evacuate prairie dogs from their burrows. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • Relocation projects often extend past sunset. Coalition members are dedicated to placing prairie dogs in safe, new homes. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS

The actual relocations are also no small undertaking. As moving day approaches, rescuers bait humane traps with vegetables and grain. They coax out reluctant residents by pumping sudsy water into burrows (soap bubbles create air pockets that enable the animals to breathe), then wipe their faces clean and place them in pet carriers filled with hay or soft towels.

At the release site, the team digs burrow openings and installs underground nest boxes. They mow the surrounding grass to ensure line of sight for the new tenants. They temporarily place cages over burrow entrances to acclimate the prairie dogs to their new homes and protect against predators. On release day, they stock the cages with grain, carrots, corn on the cob and lettuce. Soon, the animals will begin carving out the first tunnels below ground.

Keeping the peace: Conflict prevention

Sometimes, in order to save prairie dogs from being poisoned or shot, the Prairie Dog Coalition works to prevent them from migrating into areas where they’re not welcome. The predator-wary animals avoid venturing into places where they have no line of sight, so the team collaborates with land and wildlife managers to create buffer zones and visual barriers such as fencing and high-growing vegetation. These visual barriers can help keep prairie dogs out of lethal control zones.  

Prairie dogs can also be encouraged to move into areas where their colonies aren’t a concern. Manipulated grazing, mowing and controlled burns open up their view, encouraging migration. 

Combating plague: Treatment and research

Spread quickly by fleas, plague has become prairie dogs’ primary killer. The Prairie Dog Coalition works with government agencies and wildlife managers to apply flea-killing dust to prairie dog towns. The Coalition also funds and participates in plague prevention research.

Reaching hearts and minds: Conservation education

The Coalition educates people and government agencies about how prairie dog colonies create a healthy mosaic of plant species, dirt patches for animal dust baths and bare ground for ground-nesting birds. Puppet shows inspire a new generation of advocates.  

What you can do

  • Donate: Join us in protecting prairie dogs and restoring their ecosystems.

  • Stay connected: Sign up to receive news about prairie dogs and other animals right in your inbox.

  • Volunteer: Help the Prairie Dog Coalition with relocation projects, public outreach, fundraising and more. 

  

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