The Road to Conserving Native Plains Wildlife
There is a saying, “My heart is in the mountains, but my soul is on the prairie.” Our grasslands really are special. I remember my second day as Defenders’ senior field representative for the plains. I was driving to a remote area of Montana, the American Prairie, to work on a prairie dog project. The brilliance of the plains was all too apparent. The rolling grasslands, teeming with wildlife, surrounded me. I spotted a red-tailed hawk, sharp-tailed grouse, Pronghorn antelope and white-tailed deer. I pulled over to use my binoculars to view the dark brown figures in the distance, bison. There must have been hundreds: slowly moving, foraging and a few bulls wallowing in the dirt, rolling on their backs. Prairie dogs appeared in the foreground, some scurrying around and others standing on their burrows calling out to their neighbors.
Our prairie grasslands are diverse and steeped in natural and western history. Each species plays an important role in maintaining the ecosystem. Today, intact grasslands needed for native species are threatened by woody tree encroachment and the conversion of grasslands to croplands. One solution is to protect and recover plains wildlife that contribute to healthy grasslands.
There is a symbiotic relationship between bison, prairie dogs and prairie grasslands. Deep-rooted perennial grasses are ideal for soil protection and yield forage for bison. In turn, bison disturb the soil with their hooves and disperse the native seeds. Prairie dogs tend to build their burrows or “prairie dog towns” in areas where bison have grazed. The “prairie dog habitat,” created by their burrowing activities, is also important to a host of other wildlife. Golden-mantled ground squirrels, threatened mountain plovers and burrowing owls all rely on the complex system of underground prairie dog burrows for nesting areas. These burrows also act as aquifers, preventing water from eroding and helping cool the land. Prairie dogs also provide the prey base for endangered black-footed ferrets, swift foxes and Ferruginous hawks.
As prairie dogs clip the vegetation around their burrows, the amount of nitrogen in the soil increases and helps plants grow. Recent studies have shown grasses and forbs (plants with wider leaves than grasses and insect-pollinated flowers) atop prairie dog towns are higher in protein and nitrogen, and are favored for grazing by bison, elk and pronghorn. In short-grass prairies, prairie dogs’ digging and scratching increases the number of plant species, particularly forbs. Patches of bare soil provide excellent sites for annual forbs to become established.
Prairie plants are as diverse and well adapted to their environment as the animals are. Numerous species of grasses and sedges produce new leaves within a few days after being grazed, providing a continuous supply of forage. Since western grasslands are drier than eastern prairies, extensive roots are required to obtain sufficient water to maintain prairie plants during the entire year. Scattered trees in grassland ecosystems may look harmless, but the expansion of woody plants erodes resilience and along with other invasive plants can take over large expanses of the grasslands, fragmenting and degrading wildlife habitat.
To protect the endangered species of the plains, much of our work involves protecting and enhancing habitat — including the prairie dog colonies occurring on large expanses of grassland. Defenders works with partners such as with American Prairie and with Native Nations, including the Aaniiih (Gros-Ventre) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) of Fort Belknap in Montana, to protect grassland species and seek opportunities for expanding wildlife habitat where these lands can connect.
For our prairie dog work, we also partner with landowners to keep prairie dogs safe from lethal control and poisoning. Prairie dogs and ferrets are highly susceptible to sylvatic plague, which can spread fast across the prairie during an epizootic. The disease is spread by fleas originating on rodents and was first detected on the West coast at the turn of the century. To protect prairie dog colonies each summer, on designated ferret recovery sites, we walk the prairie and spray burrows with the insecticide Deltamethrin, also known as Delta dust. Prairie dogs are also vaccinated against plague through an ingestible bait we spread around their burrows, and each ferret we trap during our annual surveys in vaccinated via injection.
Our work to protect and recover plains wildlife requires hard work each summer in the field and cooperation with landowners. What remains key is projecting large expanses of grasslands and knowing that conserving animals such as prairie dogs also contributes to the health of the prairie.
This is the second installment of our monthly blog series, The Road to Conserving of Native Plains Wildlife. Missing the first? Read it here! And be sure to check back at the end of September for the next part.