Prairie Dogs and Other Species Enjoy a Fresh Start

by Ruthanne Johnson

Prairie dogs are cute, that’s for sure. They talk to each other with chirps and yips, and can often be seen playfully tackling each other while running between their burrow entrances. They stretch up to the sky and call to each other in a celebratory jump-yip once danger has passed. These native animals often groom each other, kiss, and cuddle.

Then there’s the part about them being a “keystone species” for prairie grassland ecosystems like the one in Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland. At least nine different species depend on prairie dogs for food and shelter, and about 200 species are associated in some way with the habitat they create—including the critically endangered black-footed ferret, which preys almost exclusively on prairie dogs for food.

Scientist Jonathan Proctor with Defenders of Wildlife remembers visiting Thunder Basin in 1999, when it was one of the largest black-tailed prairie dog complexes on federal land. “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,” he said.

The grassland, sadly, is no longer the thriving wildlife habitat it once was. In the 1990s, Proctor says, there were seven large prairie dog complexes of 10,000 acres across the Great Plains, and Thunder Basin was one of them—until sylvatic plague hit. This flea-borne exotic disease is quite lethal to prairie dogs.

Now prairie dog colonies are a mere 2 to 8 percent of what they used to be. Populations of many species associated with them have also declined.

Before it’s too late

Since 2001, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Cristi Painter has been working to prioritize nonlethal management methods for prairie dogs on the federal grassland—an innovative tactic to conserve prairie dogs and other grassland species in peril and as a means to reintroduce the black-footed ferret into the area.

In January, she met with The HSUS’ Lindsey Sterling Krank to discuss preservation tactics for Thunder Basin. Sterling Krank, an expert in prairie dog relocation and conservation, suggested trapping and moving two prairie dog colonies at risk of poisoning to a location deeper in the national grassland.

“I said, ‘We’ve thought about it but we don’t have enough money,'” Painter recalls. “‘We don’t have enough equipment. We don’t have enough help. And we don’t know how to do it.'”

Sterling Krank recruited Proctor and wildlife biologist Kristy Bly with World Wildlife Fund-U.S.—both prairie dog experts—and the project gathered steam.

Reviving both species

This summer, the unlikely team of conservationists and federal agents trapped and moved the two prairie dog colonies deep into the 52,000 acres of land designated for black-footed ferret reintroduction. As one of the last places capable of supporting enough prairie dogs, Thunder Basin could play a key role in ferret survival.

The Forest Service’s goal is 18,000 acres of prairie dog colonies in the ferret reintroduction area.

Along with the translocation project, controlled burns and a ban on prairie dog shooting in parts of the national grassland will encourage growth of prairie dog colonies in the ferret area. The Forest Service also applies flea-killing dust to existing colonies to prevent further outbreaks of plague.

By the end of the relocation project in late August, more than 550 prairie dogs had been moved and saved from poisoning. Although a hungry badger wrought havoc in the new colonies for a few weeks, the prairie dogs thrived in their new homes.

Success may mean future relocations on federal land and elsewhere, perhaps cutting down on poisoning and starting a brighter chapter for this persecuted species. The Forest Service plans to reintroduce ferrets in the recovery area as early as 2011.

“We’re looking to a new beginning for prairie dogs,” Sterling Krank said. “I’m glad we were there making a difference.”

Ruthanne Johnson is a staff writer for All Animals  magazine.

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