July 9, 2015

To most people in the west, the notion that we would one day have to grow a herd of prairie dogs just as we do cattle or sheep seems almost outlandish. Prairie dogs seem to just show up, sometimes where they are least expected – from vacant lots in suburban neighborhoods to the median strips of highways. But their true homes are within the vast expanse of western grasslands. Ranchers have spent the better part of the last 100 years complaining so bitterly about them because of the perceived competition with livestock for grass that the federal (and sometimes even state and local) government has provided funding to poison them. Over the past century, this effort killed off over 100 million acres of prairie dog colonies, totaling maybe a billion individuals – one of the largest mass extermination campaigns against wildlife ever conducted.

Like the bison, prairie dogs are grassland keystone engineers. Their presence shaped the ecology of the Great Plains and interior mountain grasslands. Yet they were largely eradicated to make way for crops and cattle. Prairie dogs that remain today are a shadow of their former abundance. Increasingly, prairie dogs are also under siege from newer threats. Plague, a bacterial disease more famous as the black death of the middle ages, is now ubiquitous in the environment of the prairie dog. Without immunity from this disease that was introduced to North America around 1900, prairie dog populations can completely die out in some areas when outbreaks occur. Even if the colony survives, some level of infection usually remains, impacting their survival and reproduction.

Prairie Dogs, © Scott Carr / National Geographic StockSo despite the impression that prairie dogs seem to be everywhere, a few highly visible colonies scattered over a large landscape are a far cry from the prairie dog ecosystem of old. That ecosystem – created by hundreds of millions of prairie dogs – once supported large numbers of birds, amphibian, reptiles, insects and mammals, including black-footed ferrets, one of North America’s most endangered mammals. The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America (common pet ferrets are the domesticated version of a ferret species from Europe). They can only survive among thousands of acres of prairie dog colonies, and those colonies need to be arranged closely together in large, contiguous blocks. Restoring prairie dogs is the first building block to reviving the once-vibrant grasslands of central North America. Which brings us to the American Prairie Reserve (APR) in northeastern Montana.

APR is buying private ranchlands with the express purpose of managing them primarily for wildlife, returning millions of acres to grassland habitat. We came to them with a proposal: Because prairie dogs need a boost, can we try some techniques to grow the small colonies on the Reserve to the kind of large complexes needed to replicate the historic colonies that once blanketed the grasslands? APR enthusiastically responded “Yes!”

So in June, Jonathan Proctor and I, along with Defenders’ volunteer Curt Freese (an early co-founder of the Reserve along with myself) traveled to the Reserve to begin the effort to expand prairie dog colonies. We enlisted the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the US, which brings extensive experience in moving prairie dogs out of the way of big development projects, and has developed techniques to build artificial temporary “homes” for prairie dogs. The final partner in the project was a team of volunteers with the nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. These sturdy young biologists (Caroline Hedin, Rachel Karlov, Grace Ellison, Brady Koss, Nathan Collier, and crew boss Ryan Rock) work closely with the Reserve on conservation projects through APR’s Landmark citizen science program.

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Our goals were threefold. First, we wanted to make new habitat more prairie dog friendly, so, we cut down greasewood brush and mowed tall grass in and around a small existing prairie dog colony to encourage expansion and improve survival. Prairie dogs avoid areas with these kinds of plants because they provide cover for predators to hide in. The team cleared a total of 50 acres – that’s a lot more room for prairie dogs!

Next, we wanted to encourage prairie dogs to move into this new area by giving them a place to escape. Prairie dogs are world class diggers, but it’s not so easy to start a new burrow from scratch while keeping an eye out for predators. So we installed 45 artificial “nest boxes”—a ready-made escape tunnel—throughout the new habitat. If we could get them to spread out a bit more, it would encourage the colony to grow. APR staff reported less than a week later that that is exactly what happened: Prairie dogs are already using the new homes and grazing in the short grass!

Lastly, we wanted to protect the growing colony from plague. While exciting advances in managing this disease in wild populations are on the horizon, the current best practice is to tediously go to every burrow in a colony and spritz a small dose of insecticide to kill the fleas that carry plague. So that’s exactly what we did, dusting a total of 12,000 burrows! As prairie dogs come and go from the burrow, they rub on the flea powder and, much like the flea collar on a dog or cat, fleas are controlled. In total, we expanded and protected more than 400 acres of prairie dog colonies!

So American Prairie Reserve, along with its bison restoration, stream restoration, and grassland restoration, is now overseeing a growing network of prairie dog colonies, and Defenders is happy to be a partner. Our success here is crucial—if the techniques at APR encourage prairie dog colonies to grow and expand, we can use the same methods in restoration efforts throughout the prairie dog’s range, restoring this key element of our native grasslands. As we saw, it’s a lot of work restoring prairie dog habitat – but it’s worth it. In time, we may see more “prairie dog wranglers” bellying up to western bars after a long day in the tractor mower saddle…at least we can hope.

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