By a 6-1 vote, city commissioners approved final passage of an ordinance that added the creatures to the city’s definition of public nuisance and required property owners to, “maintain their property as to control, and to the extent possible, eradicate disease carrying or poisonous animals.”
- Two of the five species of prairie dogs are protected under The Endangered Species Act. Black-tailed prairie dogs have been granted a “Warranted but Precluded” Threatened Species listing, which means that biologically they deserve protection but the government does not have the resources required for enforcement at this time.
- Overall, prairie dogs inhabit less than 1% of their former range. New Mexico has the smallest remaining acreage of prairie dogs across their historical range. Best estimates on Gunnison’s populations are that they inhabit about 2% of their former region. This means overall numbers are dangerously low since their range is much smaller than that of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog. A surprisingly large percentage of remaining prairie dog colonies live in urban environments.
- Prairie dogs are known as a “keystone species.” Over 160 vertebrates alone are associated with large prairie dog colonies and over 80 on “urban” colonies. Possibly the world’s most endangered animal, the Black-footed Ferret, cannot live without prairie dogs. Some other federally protected species are nearly as dependent including the Ferruginous Hawk, the Burrowing Owl, the Swift Fox and the Mountain Plover. Biologists have termed them “perhaps the most important mammal on earth.”
Prairie dogs are important to their environment in three ways:
- They are the primary prey on rangelands and their colonies also provide a greater density of other prey species.
- They provide homes or shelters for dozens of species.
- Their positive effect on soil and vegetation conditions.
- Prairie dogs are annual breeders. About half of the females over two years of age will give birth to 3-5 pups in the spring. The overwhelming majority will not live six months.
- Prairie dogs are highly social and possess the most complex language of any animal ever studied. They display different calls for raptors, coyotes, humans and even humans carrying guns. They have numerous other calls totaling over fifty distinct “words.” Kissing, hugging and grooming are regular pastimes. Burrows are much like homes possessing front and back doors, toilets, listening posts, sleeping quarters and storage rooms.
- Poisoning prairie dogs is unacceptable. The primary poison used induces a slow, painful death that may take up to 72 hours. Other residents of their burrows suffer the same fate. Poisoning for population control is counter-productive. A mature colony left alone tends to expand about 2% per year. A poisoned colony expands at the rate of about 70% per year. Left to their own devices, prairie dogs experience their own natural population declines. They never undergo these decreases if we are constantly inducing our own, unnatural removal on their colonies.
- Shooting definitely has a significant impact on prairie dog populations. One heavily shot area was reduced by 10,000 acres in just a couple of years. Shooting promotes disease, discourages other species from hunting or living in the colony, and is not “hunting.”
My goal in writing this article is to help educate people about prairie dogs, and to provide people with objective information backed by valid scientific research. As many of us in New Mexico live among prairie dogs, I feel it is especially critical that people are well educated about these native animals.
What are prairie dogs?
Prairie dogs are large, colonial, ground-nesting squirrels. They live in large communities (colonies) in grassland habitats. They are highly social animals, and have evolved a complex language system. Prairie dogs eat grasses and weeds, and they will clip grasses to enable them to detect predators. They live in family units called coteries that consist of usually one male and several females. Females often remain in the same burrow system during their lifetime and juvenile males leave the burrow during their first year. Prairie dogs usually live for about 5 years in the wild.
What species do we have in New Mexico?
Both black-tailed prairie dogs and Gunnison’s prairie dogs occur within New Mexico.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are the most social of all the prairie dog species, and occur in the Great Plains region. They used to be common in the eastern and southwestern part of New Mexico, but have been eliminated from most of their native habitat within the state.
Gunnison’s prairie dogs occur throughout the four corners region and are found in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Socorro, Gallup, and Grants. Gunnison’s prairie dogs also have declined significantly, and have been petitioned to be listed under the endangered species list.
Prairie dog reproduction
Prairie dogs are not prolific breeders. They only have one litter per year, consisting of about four young, of which only two usually survive.
The ecological role of prairie dogs
Prairie dogs were once among the most numerous and widespread herbivores in North American grasslands. Human activities such as habitat destruction and poisoning efforts have significantly reduced prairie dog populations. Three of the five species are federally listed as threatened or endangered. The most widespread species, the black-tailed prairie dog, now occupies less than 2% of its historical range. Scientists studying prairie dogs have estimated that at least 163 animal species are associated with prairie dog colonies, indicating that the prairie dog is a “keystone” (i.e., critically important) species in these ecosystems. Prairie dogs create ecological disturbances resulting in a diverse landscape that provides a variety of habitats for many plant and animal species, including black-footed ferrets, rabbits, squirrels, lizards, snakes, burrowing owls, and invertebrates. Prairie dogs also affect grassland plant species composition and vegetation structure and enhance soil and plant nutritional quality, which benefits antelope, bison, and cattle.
Prairie dog eradication has caused significant biological degradation and decline in biological diversity on grasslands in North America. Research has found that prairie dogs inhibit woody plants from invading grasslands, and has indicated that the elimination of these rodents has played a significant role in desertification of grasslands. In addition, removal of prairie dogs causes secondary extinctions of other species, altering the entire food web associated with prairie dogs. For example, the black-footed ferret, burrowing owl, mountain plover, and ferruginous hawk are among the most endangered prairie dog-dependent species. Despite their importance, people often want to exterminate prairie dogs because of misconceptions about proliferation, children being bitten, destruction of landscaped areas, plague, competition for forage with livestock, and animals breaking their legs in the burrows.
Are they dangerous to humans?
Prairie dogs are not a threat to children. They are timid animals, and when approached by humans, prairie dogs quickly scurry into the safety of their burrows. People should never hand feed prairie dogs or try to grab them. Hand feeding may cause the animals to be accustomed to humans, and result in bites when humans get too close.
Prairie dogs and hantavirus
Prairie dogs are not known to contract or transmit hantaviruses. Worldwide, hantaviruses are associated with deer mice and other rodents in the family Muridae, which are distant relatives of prairie dogs (Squirrels, in the family Sciuridae).
Prairie dogs and plague
Prairie dogs do not carry plague. Plague is a non-native disease, introduced to North America from Europe by humans. Prairie dogs have not evolved immunity to plague, and therefore, it kills 99% of the individuals in an infected colony. Plague has been a major contributor to causing the decline in prairie dog populations.
Fleas carry the plague. These fleas can be found on many wild animals, and are not limited to prairie dogs. Killing prairie dogs just causes fleas to search for another host, and is not recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as an effective method of plague control. The key to preventing plague is to control fleas, not prairie dogs. Avoiding contact with dead wild animals and dusting pets and rodent burrows with flea powder can successfully prevent plague. Plague is also easily overcome with antibiotics when detected early, so people should educate themselves about the symptoms of plague. A colony of active prairie dogs is indicative of healthy, plague-free prairie dogs, and should not cause concern.
What if they are damaging the landscape in your yard?
If prairie dogs are causing damage to landscaped areas, you can use visual barriers such as vegetation or low walls and additional below ground barriers to contain the animals. Prairie dogs are highly discouraged by tall vegetation, so plant native shrubs and do not mow native grasses. Xeriscaping the area will also help discourage prairie dogs, and conserve water.
How to get rid of prairie dogs
Rat poison should not be used to kill prairie dogs because it causes secondary poisoning of dogs, cats, and other animals, and is dangerous to children. The only legal method for killing prairie dogs involves the use of poisonous gas by licensed professionals (in most states), which is costly. The poisonous gases used are inhumane, causing slow and painful deaths, and can take up to 72 hours to induce death in an animal. During which time the animals suffer from burning of the mucus membranes to paralysis.
The best recommendation is to learn to live with these native animals, and, if for some reason, prairie dogs must be removed, you can contact professional relocators in the state that can be referred by People for Native Ecosystems (PNE) (505) 982-0496 or the City of Santa Fe Permit Development and Review (505) 955-6480. Prairie Dog Pals of Albuquerque also conducts some relocations, though mostly on public lands.
Shooting prairie dogs
Shooting is often used as a means of reducing the size of a prairie dog colony. Varmint hunters gather together in many states where prairie dogs occur to shoot them. They do not eat the prairie dogs; rather, they shoot them with rifles for target practice fun. In our national grasslands, bullet shells and literally exploded prairie dogs can be found littering the colonies. It is important to keep in mind that that these are highly social animals that are greatly affected by the shooting of their family members. Prairie dogs have become threatened species and are not prolific breeders, so sport shooting should be banned.
Do prairie dogs compete with cattle for forage?
Recent research has found that prairie dogs compete little for forage with cattle (~5%). In fact, by clipping grasses, prairie dogs eliminate old plant tissue and stimulate new plant growth. New plant growth contains more protein, so the nutritional quality of the vegetation on prairie dog colonies is greater than off colonies, despite the lower quantity of vegetation. Cattle have been found to gain similar to more weight when foraging on prairie dog colonies than off. Keep in mind that prairie dogs and bison have coexisted for millions of years, and bison and other ungulates consistently prefer to graze on prairie dog colonies.
What about falling into prairie dog holes?
The myth that cattle fall into prairie dog holes apparently began in the late 1800’s. During this time, cattle were over-stocked on rangeland here in the Southwest. Cattle were overgrazing the lands, and combined with a 25 year drought period at the end of the century, many of the grasslands became desertified. There was little forage for cattle to eat and many became sick and lethargic, causing some of the cattle to apparently fall into the burrows. A healthy cow slowly grazes with its head down and does not fall into burrows. Remember, bison evolved along with prairie dogs.
Some people like to ride their horses in the mountains but feel they can’t because prairie dog burrows are present. My advice is not to run your horse on a prairie dog colony, and find an alternative place to ride. These animals no longer occur in large colonies due to their population declines, and therefore, it should not be difficult to find an alternative place to ride. If we live in the mountains or are recreationally enjoying them it is important to remember that wildlife are present in these areas and we need to learn how to live with them, not eliminate them because they are in our way.
Prairie dogs as pets
Prairie dogs express social behavior that humans can relate to, but they do not make good pets. Because they are highly social animals, they should never be kept in isolation. Prairie dogs require considerable attention, and also are highly active with lots of energy and desire to chew and dig. They often will chew furniture when let out of their cage and will dig at rugs, tearing them up. In addition, prairie dogs have a breeding season each year, during which their hormones change and they can become aggressive. During this time even friendly prairie dogs can bite. Moreover, most prairie dogs sold as pets are taken directly from the wild. They have not been bred in captivity for generations, unlike most animals that we have for pets. Keep in mind that dogs have been domesticated for 10,000 years. Because prairie dogs have not been domesticated, they exhibit wild tendencies and may not always be friendly to the people they live with.
Wild prairie dogs sold for pets are often collected from areas where landowners want to reduce or eliminate the prairie dog population on their land. These prairie dogs have been acquired through unregulated harvest to provide profit for the pet trade. Some of the methods used to obtain prairie dogs for pets, such as removing prairie dogs with a “sucker truck,” a truck with a vacuum hose, are inhumane. The pet trade contributes to the decline of the species. If prairie dogs must be removed or controlled in an area, the animals should be humanely relocated to appropriate areas where their populations are desired.
Current efforts to protect prairie dogs within the state
Currently there are no efforts established to protect the Gunnison’s prairie dogs. However, both the city of Albuquerque and of Santa Fe do not allow the poisoning of this species within the city limits. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has determined that black-tailed prairie dogs have declined significantly throughout their range and that their status as a threatened species is “warranted but precluded.” Meaning that there are significant threats affecting the long-term viability of the black-tailed prairie dog, but there are insufficient resources to protect this species. The limited funds available to the USFWS for threatened and endangered species is currently being used for species that are of greater concern.
Game and fish departments from most states in which prairie dogs occur have established black-tailed prairie dog working groups. These working groups are designed to develop a management plan to reduce the decline of prairie dogs so that listing will not be necessary.
Why are they endangered? I see so many of them!
Often people think that because they see “lots” of prairie dogs that they couldn’t be declining. Keep in mind that they once occurred in huge numbers (~5 billion) throughout most of the grasslands in the central United States. They have declined greatly relative to their former abundance. There are many large threats affecting their populations: continued poisoning and shooting, habitat loss through development and desertification, and plague. In addition, many animal species that are dependent on the prairie dog require large colonies in order to support them. Most of the prairie dog colonies have become fragmented and isolated from one another, which lowers the long-term viability of maintaining the population and the other species dependent on them. The plight of the prairie dog is analogous to the passenger pigeon, once one of the most abundant and common species that has now become extinct due to human persecution.
How you can help
People are greatly needed to help in education, legislation, and relocation efforts. Contact a local wildlife organization such as Prairie Dog Pals or People for Native Ecosystems (contact info above) if you have an interest in helping the prairie dogs. You can also find more information about prairie dogs on the web at http://www.prairiedogs.org and http://www.gprc.org .
Ana D. Davidson, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
The University of New Mexico
- Prairie dogs are a keystone species with up to 205 associated vertebrates (9 considered dependent) living with them, using their burrows, or predating upon them
- There are 5 species of prairie dogs. The ones in Albuquerque are Gunnison’s, the others include Mexican, Utah, white and black tailed.
- Gunnison’s prairie dogs hibernate during the winter months.
- Over the last 100 years prairie dogs have been reduced to 1% of their former range and 2% of their population.
- Some of the species are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Others are being considered for listing.
- New Mexico has the smallest remaining acreage of prairie dogs.
- Prairie dogs are territorial and will remain in or near their ancestral habitat if at all possible. The prairie dogs you see here in Albuquerque are the remnants of vast prairie dog towns that existed for hundreds of years.
- Prairie dogs live an average of 3-5 years in the wild.
- Prairie dogs are annual breeders. 50% of females over 2 years of age will breed and produce an average of 4 pups.
- Pups are usually born in early May and will emerge from their burrows after about thirty days.
- Prairie dogs have the most complex language of any animal ever studied.
- They have over 200 words and can form sentences identifying intruders by color, size and type of risk.
- Burrows are complex with a different area for each function of life. There are living chambers, sleeping and nesting rooms, a food storage area,
- toilet rooms, and flood chambers. The burrows themselves generally include a second entrance or escape way, air chambers, and listening posts in addition to the main entrance.
- As with humans, prairie dogs are the victims of plague. Virus carrying fleas are brought into the colony by wild animals or off leash cats or dogs.
- As they have no immunity to the plague they will die within days.
- Poisoning prairie dogs in both cruel and ineffective. The poison causes a slow agonizing death that may take up to three days.
- A mature colony tends to expand at approximately 2% annually. A poisoned colony can expand at an annual rate of 70%. Additionally the poison can pose a danger to humans, cats, dogs, and other animals in the area.
The following was provided by an individual concerning her experience with a so-called humane method of dealing with prairie dogs. Although she gave us permission to use her name and location Prairie Dog Pals felt it best just to convey the information.
I would like to share my experience with the subject of humane prairie dog control. *Last fall*, I took a half day seminar with the XXXXXX County to learn how to properly use and then obtain a substance called Fumitoxin Aluminm Phosphide Pesticide. Several of these small pellets are placed deep inside a prairie dog’s hole, then sealed off with stuffed newspaper. Upon absorbing the moist conditions of the earth, the pellet dissolves into a gas and the prairie dog goes to sleep…… permanently.
I was in a class with generally like-minded people who really didn’t
want to kill prairie dogs, but were at wits end with an over populated situation. My inner voice told me this was wrong, and I went against that and my obviously weak convictions. I received certification and used the material on a small field.
This Spring, there are prairie dogs around my house/yard, lethargic, spasmatic, confused, vulnerable, and sadly dying slowly. You can walk right up to them and they don’t know where to go…. if anything they walk into a strange place and sit there. They are a picnic for my hunter pets. My cats are sick and spend most of the time sleeping. My dogs are also carrying carcasses around, but don’t yet seem to be sick.
I intend to bring this information to the County. Will advise if learn any more from them. But my belief is that they should not be supporting this to the public as a “humane method of control.”
This is not our first experience with this compound. In 2004 the City suspended poisoning when it realized that it was a cruel way to dispose of the prairie dogs. It also represented a threat to companion animals and other wild animals that might feed on the dead prairie dogs, and might pose a risk to humans as well. Dick Fagerlund, the Bugman, had this to say to a property owner who chose to dispose of his prairie dogs using this ghastly method.
As for the method used to kill the prairie dogs, the pest control company used the most hideous product available. When Fumitoxin is used to kill animals, the results are extremely cruel. The active ingredient in Fumitoxin is aluminum phosphide, a deadly gas that releases phosphine gas into the burrows when it is exposed to air. Phosphine gas burns the skin and eyes of the prairie dogs as well as the mucous lining of their mouths as they scream and their lungs as they attempt to breathe. They are literally on “fire” internally and externally as they slowly die in excruciating pain. The mothers in the burrows try to save their babies but cannot escape the gas that is destroying them slowly but surely. These animals do not just go to sleep when the gas is introduced into their burrows. They literally burn in hell until God mercifully takes their little souls.
I realize that you were probably unaware of the mode of action of the gas used to kill the prairie dogs, but Jesus knew very well how it works. All I can say is that when the company decided to use the Fumitoxin on God’s little creatures, Jesus wept.
I hope the church reconsiders how they deal with perceived pest animals in the future.
And finally, in response to the continued poisoning at Kirtland, Yvonne Boudreaux, president of Prairie Dog Pals, had this to add:
I’m not sure where this thread started, but I just have to weigh in. How can “anyone” CONDONE killing these intelligent creatures?? with or without “the facts”, as if MORE disinformation makes poisoning palatable, reasonable??? Nothing, no one deserves to die by Fumitoxin! (aluminum phosphide) The known facts of this cheap poison is that it takes them several days to die, bleeding out from all their orifices, IF it is done “right”…. However, the truth is much worse… I rescued a juvenile female 2 years ago, three weeks after a documented poisoning. She was blind and emaciated, but I took her back to a treatment cage for further care with some hope. Unfortunately, she was found dead the next morning with maggots eating their way out of her lungs. THEY DO NOT “GO TO SLEEP”! Ardeth’s only error is that they have poisoned multiple colonies… many, many times… over DECADES!