The prairie dog is the center of the Great Plains animal community. There are only a handful of sites in the entire West where the species is not under eradication. It is speculated that the species has declined 98 percent across its habitat. In national parks, prairie dogs colonies are fragmented, isolated, and downright tiny. Today only seven parks hold prairie dog populations. Four places- Bens Old Fort National Historic Site, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Devils Tower National Monument, and Fort Laramie National Historic Site- active dog towns are no more than 20 acres. The other three- Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt National park- are larger. But the biggest, the Badlands, is barely 4,200 acres. The total area occupied by prairie dogs isnt more than 6,000 acres. At the turn of the century, one Texas prairie dog town measured 100 by 250 miles almost the size of Maine. About 400 million animals lived there. In the 1920s, it was estimated that the population of North American prairie dogs exceeded 500 billion. As much as twenty percent of the plains may have held these animals.
Of all major biomes in North America, the plains have suffered the most, and dog towns have been destroyed for plowing. Systematic poisoning has grown into a fatal threat to the prairie dogs, as well as gopher hunting, dollar-a-dog contests, and red mist destruction. Some rural towns hold contests for cash prizes for the individual who shoots the most dogs in one day, hence dollar-a-dog. In addition to the target practice is a new killer-sylvatic plague. It is spread by fleas, gradually diffused across the West, and to make matters worse, the little critters have little or no immunity. Once the disease enters a colony, the entire town is usually lost. There are no reserve colonies to repopulate towns that are lost due to hunting, plague, poisoning, or natural events. To tell the truth, the prairie dog ecosystems are as at much risk as the old-growth forests and salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest.
The Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Colorado filed a petition in October of 1994 to list the prairie dog as a Category 2 under the Endangered Species Act. This states that federal agencies must be alerted that a species may be in jeopardy unless changes occur. Prairie dogs are considered by scientists to be a keystone species, which means that they are what a recorded 170 other wildlife species depend on. For example, they are the prime source of food for the black-footed ferret and the swift fox. Their abandoned colonies are later inhabited by anything form burrowing owls to rattlesnakes. Without the prairie dog, many dependent species will not survive. Their ecosystems support higher numbers of small mammals , more terrestrial predators, and higher densities, and greater diversity of bird species than grasslands without these rodents. Whats the greatest irony in the decline of the prairie dog is that it cannot be justified.
Even the livestock industrys claims that prairie dogs compete with their cattle for forage appear vacuous. Studies have shown that prairie dogs actually improve forage quality for livestock. One study in South Dakota documented that livestock grazing near dog towns suffered neither weight loss nor a reduction in weight gain. And, prairie dogs thrive where trampling and grazing by livestock reduce grass height. Parks are very frightened at the idea of human visitors contracting plagues from prairie dogs. They often conduct spot treatments with poisoned oats, gas, and more. This destruction is hypocritical of the National Parks philosophy to protect native species. Poisoning of the rodents continued in the Badlands up until 1993, one year before the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. On public and private lands, the poison of choice is zinc phosphate. Oats and other grains are laced with the chemical and then sprinkled around the colony.
The death is slow and painful, taking up to twelve hours, and causing them to go into convulsions and seizures. The most disgusting method, however, is a backpackable flamethrower. Combustible gas is thrown into the burrows, is ignited, and burns the rodents alive. A change in attitude towards prairie dogs is gaining momentum. Several policy changes are in line, including a colony monitoring system to help us learn more about the natural habitat and behavior of the furry mammals. In pre-settlement days, Great Plains ecosystems were characterized by a dynamic shifting puzzle of intense disturbance created by heavy bison grazing, wildfire, prairie dog colonization, expansion, and decline.
Today, few places exist where all three major disturbance factorsbison, wildfire, and prairie dogs-occur on any acreage. Such rigid boundaries that the colonies are in may not provide room for expansion. As the human population dwindles in the rural plains, room for a buffalo-prairie dog commons is highly plausible. We spent 100 years what has taken thousands of years to evolve. Now we should be asking what role they play in prairie ecosystems and providing them the space and respect they need to evolve to their potential.