A variety of organizations are coming together to launch a large-scale collaborative effort focused on identifying potential landscapes for conservation across the grasslands of North America. The effort—dubbed Homes on the Range—integrates a keystone species, land use patterns and climate change to enhance current and future grassland restoration efforts. Participants in the effort include the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States; the Colorado Natural Heritage Program and Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; USDA Agriculture Research Services; and the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.
The Great Plains support a suite of species associated with black-tailed prairie dogs, including mountain plovers, burrowing owls, swift foxes and the highly endangered black-footed ferrets. Over the course of two years, conservation groups, scientists and agencies will work together to identify potential landscapes for conservation of the prairie dog ecosystem across North America’s Great Plains. Through mapping and ecological modeling, these landscape priorities will consider ecological parameters (soil types, vegetation types etc.) landownership patterns and the presence of associated and endangered species, along with changing climate and land use to maximize long-term conservation potential and co-existence with human activities. Funds for this work are being provided by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, administered through the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
The name “Homes on the Range” is in reference to the classic American folk song, but also speaks to the many species and ecosystems that call the range home. Because prairie dogs are a keystone species and ecosystem engineers of North America’s central grasslands, their conservation and management often lies at the core of many conservation efforts across the this region.
“The Homes on the Range project is the realization of years of planning for proactive protection and conservation of the prairie dog ecosystem,” said Lindsey Sterling Krank, environmental scientist with the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States.
Prairie dog populations have declined by over 95 percent over the last century, subsequently resulting in a decline of species that rely on prairie dogs for habitat creation, such as burrowing owls and mountain plovers and as prey for black-footed ferrets and ferruginous hawks.
Prairie dog management is challenging because they are severely affected by plague, a non-native disease introduced from Asia, which has the ability to devastate their populations. Their populations are also threatened by drought and climate change in the southern portion of their geographic range.
"By focusing priority areas for conservation around prairie dogs—a keystone species of North America's grasslands—we are able to protect the unique grassland ecosystem they create and the suite of grassland species that associate with them, including North America's most endangered mammal, the black-footed ferret," said Ana Davidson, Ph.D., a senior research scientist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program & Joint Faculty, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the Warner College of Natural Resources, Colorado State University.
By mapping and modeling the landscape to identify the best locations for conservation, both now and into the future under changing climate and land use, Homes on the Range will help land and wildlife managers protect and maintain healthy populations of grassland wildlife into the future.
Additionally, project results will provide a needed tool for optimizing the limited available funds for grassland conservation and restoration efforts. This is especially valuable where prairie dog complexes can be conserved and expanded into large blocks of continuous habitat supporting numerous grassland species in a way that is supported by local communities and environmental and economic factors.
By targeting future restoration efforts with those currently implemented by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Homes on the Range will provide the opportunity to conserve and restore large blocks of grassland habitat for future generations—while fostering viable local economies and traditional land uses like grazing.
“Continued human population growth, coupled with fragmenting and shifting habitats due to urbanization, climate change and energy development, necessitate a sense of urgency in conserving and improving the status of grassland ecosystems,” said Bill Van Pelt, grassland coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “By focusing efforts and increasing efficiency of grassland conservation, there will be improvements in agency staff time and budgetary investment to further grassland conservation into the future.”
- Prairie dogs have declined by 95 percent over the last 100 years.
- Prairie dogs are a keystone species in the central Great Plains. Nine wildlife species rely directly on their populations for survival, and many more depend on the prairie dogs as prey or their burrows for shelter.
- Since prairie dogs are keystone species in North America’s grasslands, conserving them is essential for many animal and land conservation projects.