October 3, 2009
What to Do About Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are a keystone species that live in towns, but occupy cities—urban prairie dogs— what’s next?
Though prairie dog habitat had decreased tremendously and their numbers have dwindled dramatically, people are still trying to wipe out these highly social creatures. Scapegoated for crop damage and livestock injuries, prairie dogs are used as live targets in organized shoots on public lands, miles away from crops and cattle.
Prairie dogs play an important role in the ecosystem. They provide food for predators and shelter for other burrowing animals. Their digging makes the soil more fertile and allows seed to germinate.
The black-footed ferret, who nearly became extinct because of the destruction of large prairie dog colonies, won't be the only loser if the eradication of prairie dogs continues.
Prairie dogs are accused of damaging crops and pastures by eating or trimming them for a better field of vision. Some fear that prairie dogs' burrows may create hazards for livestock, people, or farm machinery. The seriousness of these potential problems is often blown out of proportion.
Sometimes the damage that animals actually do is much less than believed, and sometimes what some see as "damage" is actually a benefit that goes unappreciated.
Recent studies on the overall ecological benefits of prairie dogs suggest that their critical role in encouraging biological diversity has been overlooked.
Many grazing animals, including domestic cattle, prefer to graze within prairie dog towns. Interestingly, prairie dogs prefer to build their colonies in areas that have been overgrazed since the low vegetation allows a clear view of potential predators.
Virtually nothing is known of the frequency or severity of injuries to animals or humans caused by stepping in burrows.
You can change landscaping to increase or decrease cover or available food or to encourage predators. Before making major landscaping changes, determine what species of prairie dog is on your property and do a little research on its preferred habitat. Black-tailed prairie dogs, for instance, actively clear vegetation so they can see predators from a distance. If you create a visual barrier along the edge of a colony, thereby blocking the line of sight, you can effectively limit the spread of the colony or even force an existing colony to relocate.
Fencing is generally not practical, except in special cases. You can, however, bury hardware cloth (1/4- or 1/2-inch mesh) vertically to a depth of 18 to 20 inches around small plots of ornamental plants or individual trees. Whether temporary or permanent, your barrier must not allow much light through. You can make it of many materials:
- Vinyl barrier fencing
- Snow fencing
- Wood-slatted privacy fencing
- Hay bales
You can even use tall sturdy plants:
- Fast-growing tall grasses
This may mean new plantings or simply allowing existing plant life in grassy areas to become taller and denser by mowing and clipping less often. Because black-tailed prairie dogs will actually clip plants that are taller than their preferred height, you may want to begin with vinyl barrier fencing or hay bales with tall plants planted behind them. The hay-bale will break down over a few years, but by then, the tall plants will be established and difficult for prairie dogs to clip down.
Once you understand the role native predators can play in helping to reduce prairie dog colony size, you may want to tolerate their presence in order to set up a natural balance that will reduce your problems.
To attract raptors—such as hawks, owls, and kestrels—you can provide suitable-sized nesting boxes and artificial perching sites near the colony.
Prairie dogs can carry the fleas that have been implicated in the transmission of plague.
Research has shown that "dusting" colonies with insecticides such a deltamethrim (delta dust) or pyraperm not only kills fleas but may also stop the spread of plague in colonies that have already been infected.
» Learn more from the Prairie Dog Coalition, a program of The HSUS.
» J. L. Hoogland's, The black-tailed prairie dog: Social life of a burrowing mammal (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Conservation of the Black–tailed Prairie Dog: Saving North America's Western Grasslands (Island Press, Dec. 2005).
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