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  • Prairie dogs enrich and aerate the soil by digging burrows and adding fertilizer — their own manure and urine.

  • At least nine species of wildlife depend on prairie dogs, another 20 opportunistically use prairie dog colonies and an additional 117 wildlife species likely benefit from prairie dog colonies to meet their biological needs.

  • Two prairie dogs recognize each other by touching their front teeth together.

  • Prairie dogs are highly sociable animals. The critters often look like they are kissing and hugging, and grooming is a regular pastime.

  • Burrows are much like homes possessing front and back doors, listening chambers, sleeping quarters and storage rooms. They are regular house cleaners too.

Prairie dogs, those furry little creatures with yellowish fur, round heads and short legs, are not dogs but are members of the rodent family. You can find prairie dogs throughout the western United States from Canada to Mexico. There are five species of prairie dogs in North America: Utah prairie dog, Gunnison prairie dog, White-tailed prairie dog, Mexican prairie dog, and Black-tailed prairie dog. Despite their furry cuteness, prairie dogs populations have been decimated by 95% throughout their range. Much of the decline is due to bulldozing and habitat loss, poisonings, recreational shooting. Poisoning these animals is especially cruel, and it can take up to three days for prairie dogs to die in pain from poison.

Prairie dogs are like a canary in the coal mine.  If their population declines and dies, others will soon follow. The loss of prairie dogs has implications that go beyond just having a thriving prairie dog population.  Prairie dogs are a key species to nine other species, such as hawks and owls, foxes and ferrets, and many others that depend on prairie dogs for food, or their burrows for shelter.  If we want all these Great Plains species to survive, we need a healthy prairie dog population.

In addition to providing food and shelter to associated species, prairie dog burrows actually enrich the soil and improve vegetation quality because water concentration is able to flow underground. Prairie dogs prefer to create their homes in overgrazed areas so the low vegetation can provide protection from predators. These characteristics are all part of this native animal’s role on the prairie.

Prairie dogs face a number of predators including raptors, coyotes, badgers, snakes, and humans. They can run up to 35 mph for short distances, and they depend on running and hiding for defense. Prairie dogs also depend on alerting others with a high-pitched squeak, using different individual warning sounds for identifying specific threats. 

Large groups of prairie dogs live together in burrow networks called towns or colonies. They create clean and comfy underground homes made up of intricate burrows that withstand predators and flash floods. Side chambers are used as tiny storage rooms and sleeping quarters.  Back doors are built in an alternative escape routes. Prairie dogs live in burrows approximately 10 yards apart, 3 to 14 feet deep, and 10 to 100 feet long or more. A crater-like mound, 3 to 10 feet across and a foot or more tall at the entrance to the burrow prevents water from rushing in and serves as a lookout station. A density of 35 burrows per acre is common, although up to 100 burrows per acre have been reported. These burrows can provide shelter and protection for other species of small wildlife as well.

Prairie dogs thrive in tallgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie and shortgrass prairie. In the United States, the greatest stretch of prairie extends from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains. Grasses, roots, weeds, blossoms and sometimes insects make up their diet. A prairie dog can be found constantly munching and grazing which contributes to more succulent vegetation growth higher in nutritional quality than that of un-colonized areas.

Despite their supportive role in ecosystems, prairie dogs have long been subject to mass poisoning campaigns and “killing contests." Prairie dog populations have declined nearly 95 percent due to habitat loss, government-sanctioned poisoning, and shooting. Prairie dogs are often blamed for damaging crops by eating too much vegetation and their burrows are accused of damaging farm machinery or injuring cattle. There are other solutions to some of these exaggerations.  To learn more, visit the Humane Society Prairie Dog Coalition.

“Nine different species of wildlife depend on prairie dog populations to survive," said Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Prairie Dog Coalition program of The Humane Society of the United States. Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and DBE says, “Prairie dogs are a critical component to healthy North American grasslands.”  Sterling Krank adds, “It is our duty to care for these creatures and to help preserve their homes for future generations.“

 

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