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July 27, 2010

Prairie Dogs Have Their Day

Relocation project literally breaks ground to save them

  • Prairie dogs communicate with a complex set of sounds and body language. Russell Graves

  • Lindsey Sterling Krank escorts a prairie dog to a new, safe home. The relocation project tests a new approach to helping this keystone species. Dave Showalter

  • Disease, predators, and poisoning threaten the watchful prairie dog. Dave Showalter

  • World Wildlife Fund's Kristy Bly loads prairie dogs onto the truck, shading them from the intense prairie sun. Dave Showalter

  • The endangered black-footed ferret depends heavily on prairie dogs, as do other animals. Dave Showalter

  • Team members carefully transfer a prairie dog to an acclimation cage at the new site. Dave Showalter

  • Jonathan Proctor checks the behavior of a recently relocated prairie dog. Dave Showalter

  • When a predator leaves the area, prairie dogs share the good news with a "jump yip." Russell Graves

  • Besides saving prairie dogs, this project is a new approach to sustaining healthy grassland ecosystems. Russell Graves

by Ruthanne Johnson

The stars may finally be aligning for black-tailed prairie dogs.

Historically considered pests, the targets of poisoning and sport shooting, these native animals are gaining the respect of scientists and wildlife agents in federal grasslands, where colonies of prairie dogs support a myriad of species in decline: burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, mountain plovers, swift foxes, and North America's most endangered mammal, the black-footed ferret.

This year, a new team of federal agencies and conservation organizations, including The HSUS, are relocating prairie dogs destined for poisoning on two sites considered too close to private land. Team members are spending the summer transferring the animals to a protected area of Wyoming's Thunder Basin National Grassland. The HSUS is a major player in this project, offering funding, on-site training, equipment, and supplies.

This relocation is the first of its kind on U.S. Forest Service land, raising hopes for future generations of prairie dogs.

Struggling populations in shrinking territory

Once prevalent across the Great Plains, prairie dog populations plummeted by 95 percent after decades of persecution, habitat loss, death from sylvatic plague—even capture for the pet trade. Today, they occupy 2 to 8 percent of their historic ranges, which once spread over vast areas in 12 states and parts of Mexico and Canada. Many scientists believe that without conservation efforts, they could soon disappear.

"Prairie dogs are an adaptive species," says Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, a program of The HSUS. People often think these creatures are impervious to extinction, she says, but they're not. "They are in peril and need help—as do all the species dependent on prairie dog colonies."

"Conserving prairie dogs should matter to people," Sterling Krank says. "That's part of our duty."

After moving the prairie dogs, the Forest Service will build a fence to prevent cattle from grazing in a buffer zone. Prairie dogs avoid tall grass because they can't see predators, so they should stay out of the ungrazed area. The relocated colonies should also increase habitat in Thunder Basin's black-footed ferret recovery zone, where Forest Service agents say they hope to reintroduce ferrets as soon as 2011.

The black-footed ferret needs at least 10,000 acres of prairie dog habitat for successful recovery in an area, says Jonathan Proctor, Rocky Mountain Region Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. About 15 years ago, there were seven such prairie dog complexes across the Great Plains, but all have declined significantly. Thunder Basin was one of those complexes; plague shrank prairie dog territory from 21,456 acres in 2001 to little more than 3,000 acres in 2007. 

A new approach

With prairie dog colonies weakened by plague, poisoning seems particularly reckless.

"When [prairie dogs] are poisoned, they're gone," says Cristi Painter, wildlife biologist for the Forest Service in Wyoming's Douglas Ranger District. "We are trying to create a long-term solution."

To keep plague at bay, the Forest Service dusts prairie dog colonies to kill fleas that carry the disease. They conduct controlled burns to encourage expansion into the resulting lower grasses. They construct visual buffers to discourage growth into areas where they are not wanted. Rebounding prairie dog colonies in Thunder Basin will bring the Forest Service closer to black-footed ferret reintroduction.

"Conserving prairie dogs should matter to people because it's preserving their natural heritage and their grandkids' natural heritage," Sterling Krank says. "That's part of our duty."

The prairie dog relocation in Thunder Basin National Grassland is a collaborative effort by the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Fund, and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

Ruthanne Johnson is a staff writer for All Animals magazine.

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