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Where the Prairie Dogs Roam: Part 2

Deep in the heart of national grassland, The HSUS helps resettle members of an embattled species

All Animals magazine, November/December 2010

  • View a PDF of this story here. The HSUS

  • Prairie dogs communicate through touch, smell, and a complex system of vocalizations. Roberta Olenick/PhotoLibrary

  • Among the prairie dog's cohorts are burrowing owls and and other rare North American creatures, such as black-footed ferrets and swift foxes. Dependent on prairie dogs for food and shelter, these species are in decline in large part due to the persecution of their hosts. Dave Showalter

  • The U.S. Forest Service's Misty Hays helps Kristy Bly (World Wildlife Fund-U.S.), Jonathan Proctor (Defenders of Wildlife), and Lindsey Sterling Krank (The HSUS) transfer prairie dogs into their acclimation cages. Dave Showalter

  • Thanks to an unprecendented collaboration between the Forest Service, The HSUS, and other private organizations, more than 500 prairie dogs on Thunder Basin National Grassland are safe from horrific deaths by slow bleeding. Dave Showalter

In directions she gives visitors to the Thunder Basin relocation project, Sterling Krank notes some unlikely landmarks on the landscape: a sign that says “horse,” a basketball hoop, a stand of cottonwood trees, an oil derrick pumping in the distance. Rolling mixed grasslands lift and lock horns with badland outcrops: buttes, mesas, and escarpments of sandstone, weathered by wind and rain. Below the soundtrack of meadowlark songs, cattle lows, and the occasional cry of a hawk, the prairie is profoundly quiet. Whiffs of manure boil up and blow away, superseded by the sweet scents of soil and sky. In this wide sweep of land at the edge of civilization, it seems unlikely that any animals would be in peril of poisoning, that somehow there’s not enough room for all the prairie’s species to share.

But that is indeed the narrative playing out on the Great Plains—though cold, hard statistics reveal the folly of this tale. Prairie dog populations have plummeted by 95 percent after decades of persecution, habitat loss, and even capture for the pet trade. Sylvatic plague is a particularly devastating threat; introduced into the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, the disease spreads from fleas and can wipe out an entire colony in just a few days. In Thunder Basin alone, outbreaks have caused the area colonized by prairie dogs to plunge from 21,456 acres in 2001 to about 4,000 acres in 2010. Once prevalent across the Great Plains, the five species of prairie dogs now occupy just 2 to 8 percent of their historic ranges, and many scientists believe that without serious conservation efforts, they may soon disappear.

The effects of the decline in these keystone species have rippled across the prairie.As coral reefs are to marine life, so are prairie dog colonies to grassland flora and fauna. These dynamic communities draw life into their circle. At least nine species depend on prairie dogs for food and shelter,while another 200 are associated in some way with prairie dogs and the habitat they create. Burrowing owls use their intricate tunnels to take shelter and raise young; ferruginous hawks and swift foxes prey on them; and mountain plovers nest in the low-vegetation areas left behind as the dogs munch grasses down to a stubble.

Where colonies have disappeared, numerous grassland species have declined. Proctor of Defenders of Wildlife remembers visiting Thunder Basin in 1999 to show a reporter the importance of blacktailed prairie dogs in the ecosystem. At the time, it was one of the largest remaining complexes on federal land, with prairie dogs as far as the eye could see. “It was beautiful,” he says. “ … This entire area was a city of wildlife—dozens of hawks flying overhead, herds of pronghorn, and lots and lots of black-tailed prairie dog colonies.” Surveying the same area today with binoculars, he can only lament the emptiness.

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