Driving down the highway to Bear Butte with my friend Sam, an Oglala Medicine Man, I saw some prairie dogs on the side of the road and pointed them out. “Our people believe that every animal has a medicine,” Sam said, “Spi Spi Za, the prairie dog has a medicine: it can cure cancer. It could save your life but your people just shoot’em.”
It has been our tendency since the early days of “settling the West” to shoot first and ask questions later. I like to think of “my people” as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, the authors of the conservation movement but my people are also the builders of strip-malls and high-rise apartments. The question is, can we reconcile these two tendencies, the tendency to build and possibly destroy living things in the process and the desire to preserve our natural heritage?
The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) is a keystone species on which more than 100 other species are directly dependent, including the burrowing owl and the black-footed ferret. In prairie ecosystems the tunneling of the prairie dog helps to loosen soil compaction and facilitate the succession of the plant community by grazing down highly competitive grasses, which allows other plants to get established. There is even a theory that the extensive tunneling of prairie dog colonies effects weather patterns by aiding in the formation of thunderstorms.
Black-tailed prairie dogs, which are only found in 11 Western states, once numbered over 100 million. Like the buffalo and America’s indigenous people, prairie dog populations have declined by more than 90% since 1492. The prairie dog’s habitat, the short grass prairie, has been been reduced by 95% and this animal is being considered for listing as a threatened species.
Prairie dogs are rodents and their diet is primarily vegetation. They live 3 to 5 years, weigh 2 to 3 pounds and are 14 to 17 inches long with a 3 to 4 inch tail. They are tan in color with a lighter colored underbelly. Their tails are sparsely covered with black hair. Prairie dogs do not hibernate and can be seen on sunny days throughout the winter.
Prairie dogs are highly social animals that live in extended family groups called coteries, within larger colonies. They keep a perimeter around their burrows mowed so that they can spot predators with their keen eyesight. When an intruder approaches they let out a distinctive bark or “chirk” to warn the colony, hence the name prairie dog. Prairie dogs greet each other by pressing their front teeth together in a way that looks like they’re kissing.
Prairie dog colonies in the wild are constantly on the move, abandoning overgrazed areas in search of greener pastures and therein lies the problem. The ideal population of a colony is thought to be about 7 to 14 animals per acre. However, when populations are hemmed in by man-made obstacles like roads and buildings the colony’s population will exceed what the land can support. Colonies trapped in this way will strip away vegetation and suffer from malnutrition. Eventually the entire colony can collapse from starvation and disease.
Some argue that prairie dogs carry bubonic plague and are a threat to public safety but only two people have died of plague in Colorado since 1950. I knew one of them, Mrs Monroe, who lived on County Road 68C in Red Feather Lakes. She was an elderly lady who was very fond of animals and her home was often occupied by a variety of sick and injured squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons, which she would nurse back to health. Obviously she had more than average exposure to wild animals
Following the logic of eliminating prairie dogs because they pose a human health risk, we should begin by eliminating cars. Traffic fatalities in the U.S. number in the scores of thousands every year. If we began listing the greatest threats to human life first it would be a very long list indeed before we got to prairie
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are environmentally minded people who react strongly against managing prairie dog populations, even badly over-populated ones. The logic seems to be that prairie dogs should be left in their natural state but obviously in the case of urban and suburban prairie dogs we are not dealing with a wildlife population in its natural state.
On numerous occasions this has put landowners who wish to do the right thing in an awkward public relations position and the polarization of these two views seems to be leading to an all or nothing situation. It seems that responsible management is the key to successfully keeping this fascinating and controversial animal as a permanent feature of suburbitat
Responsible management would mean identifying areas where populations of prairie dogs could be maintained permanently, making sure that those areas had the right kind of plants in sufficient quantities to sustain the colony, setting those areas aside as permanent conservation areas and reducing the size of the colony when necessary.
Of the many things that concern me these days, prairie dogs are certainly not least of all, in fact they occupy my thoughts a good deal of the time. If we eradicate a species that is a cornerstone of prairie ecology in order to build the beautiful world that we envision is that world really worth building? What do we owe the animals that share the suburbitat when human intervention has as much influence on their lives as nature itself?
Extinction, after all, is not just about exotic animals like gorillas, tigers and elephants. Species disappear one at a time on a local level due to environmental changes, often as a result of continuous pressure from their human neighbors. Conservation of the world’s biological heritage is just beyond the fence, right in your own backyard
Visit the Prairie Dog Coalition website to learn more about prairie dogs and find out how you can help.
Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland CO. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live work and play www.suburbitat.org