What’s so great about prairie dogs anyway?
Lindsey Sterling Krank with the Humane Society of the United States’ Prairie Dog Coalition presented on the prairie dog populations and conservation efforts underway to protect these rapidly declining and often misunderstood animals. Krank highlighted three main points in favor of preserving prairie dog populations: they are a keystone species, they have a complex communication system, and 95 percent of their population has been eliminated already.
Krank explained prairie dogs are a keystone species because 200 other species are associated with them and their habitats and nine other species directly rely on them. Prairie dogs contribute to their ecosystem by providing a prey species to certain predators like hawks. Krank cited the example of Ferruginous Hawks, whose numbers are in decline because of habitat loss, prey loss and because of secondary poisoning through prairie dogs being poisoned. In addition to being prey, other species utilize their burrows, like Black-Footed Ferrets, Burrowing Owls and the Mountain Plover. Krank also stated prairie dogs provide more floral abundance and don’t actually destroy the grasslands around them, but keep the grass shorter to monitor for predators near their burrows. “The more heterogeneity, the more biodiversity,” Krank added.
Krank presented research by Dr. Don Slobadchikoff, who studied the prairie dogs language, which has been decoded more than the communication of whales, chimpanzees and dolphins. The prairie dogs have alarm calls that vary based on species, with Krank playing their distinct alarms for coyotes, dogs and humans, noting they never confuse dogs and coyotes, even when the two are similar in appearance. Prairie dogs also have a sentence structure that includes nouns, adjectives and verbs, confirmed in a study where the same woman approached a prairie dog colony in differently colored shirts and the alarms varied when describing the color of the shirt. Slobadchikoff’s research also found prairie dogs have different dialects by region and local districts.
There are five species of prairie dogs and all have lost a combined 95 percent of their population through habitat loss, poisoning, recreational shooting and sylvatic plague. Krank noted “the perception that prairie dogs are everywhere because you see them in medians” and in other small spaces where they don’t belong isn’t accurate, because finding them in those locations means urban sprawl and agricultural expansion has chased them out of the spaces they would normally live. Krank also noted a lot of the acceptance for poisoning the animals comes from research done by C.H. Merriam which gained popularity during the New Deal Era when he concluded it takes 318 prairie dogs to eat as much grass as one cow, which was inaccurate because the prairie dogs don’t destroy the grass, just trim it and this justified moving cattle into the prairie dogs existing habitats.
Sylvatic plague is not a disease native to prairie dogs, but is given to them by bacteria carried in fleas. Prairie dogs actually are not carriers and don’t have an immunity to the plague, they die from it, unlike unaffected carriers like coyotes and 77 other species. In humans, the plague can be treated with a 10-day course of antibiotics and it’s largely no longer a significant health threat. To combat the plague, conservationists are using mild pesticides to kill the fleas and are immunizing prairie dogs and black footed ferrets with a vaccine distributed with oral bait.
To change the public perception of prairie dogs, conservationists are framing the discussion from a cost-benefit angle. Poisoning prairie dogs is actually an economic loss, Krank explained and because they are a prey species, having colonies near where people live keeps dogs and cats safer. There is also more forage for other animals on prairie dog colony areas than off.
Prairie dog recovery relies on identifying key conservation areas, working with willing partners and completing wild to wild relocation or translocation efforts or building up passive relocation, like establishing natural barriers to encourage them to move out of dangerous areas. When completing relocations, coteries (family units) have to be kept together. Advocates are also looking at incentivized and voluntary landowner conservation efforts. The last attempt at landowner incentives fell through when plague killed the population in question before anything was finalized. There are several ways concerned individuals can help prairie dogs by donating to the Prairie Dog Coalition or “adopting” prairie dogs. More information can be found at http://www.humanesociety.org/about/departments/prairie_dog_coalition/index.html.