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The Prairie Dog: Friend Or Foe?

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920 words
Science & Nature

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Farmers and ranchers hate them. Scientists learn from them. Families enjoy watching them. Whatever their viewpoint, most people living on the prairie have a strongly-held opinion on prairie dogs.
Prairie dogs are members of the rodent family, the largest group of mammals in the world. They live in colonies on the prairie that range in size from one acre to several thousand acres. The number of prairie dogs in North America in 1920 was about 5 billion, according to naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, and the subterranean towns they created covered more than 2 million acres. But years of purposeful eradication by federal, state, and local governments, wipeouts from flea-borne plague, recreational shooting, and habitat destruction have left prairie dogs inhabiting only two percent of their range from Mexico to Canada. Biologists say that the resulting smaller, more fragmented prairie dog towns leave the animals vulnerable to disease and natural catastrophes. Populations are even limited on the land that is available. Current policies on National Grasslands and other federal lands typically limit prairie dogs to small percentages of available potential habitat.
Prairie dogs are essential to our prairie ecosystem. Many species dependent on prairie dogs for prey and habitat are diminishing in direct relation to the decreasing number of prairie dogs. Unlike other species, which have declined because of habitat loss due to human activities, the loss of prairie dog populations is a direct result of governmental and private landowner efforts to eradicate them. Prairie dogs and their environment must be protected by law to preserve our native prairie ecosystem.
Tim Clark, a Yale University biologist and a veteran of years of observing prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in the field, is quoted in National Geographic's 'The Vanishing Prairie Dog':
Prairie dogs figure prominently in the ecology of this continent. They are an umbrella species that offers prey, shelter, and habitat to other creatures, and the list is long: black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, badgers, mountain plovers, swift foxes, rattlesnakes, and an array of toads, rabbits, spiders, salamanders, ants, and beetles. Does it make sense to try to eliminate prairie dogs and then turn around and declare ferrets endangered and spend a lot of money attempting to restore them? (122)
Black-footed ferrets, which are almost entirely dependent on prairie dogs for prey and habitat, are now functionally extinct, having been reduced to a couple of dozen captive animals. Other prairie companions, including mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks, and swift foxes, have been proposed as candidates under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Burrowing owls, along with various reptiles and insects, house themselves in prairie dog tunnels. The prairie dog is part of an ecosystem that supports at least 170 species of life on the prairie. Biologists warn that prairie dogs are actually good for the environment, even vital to a healthy prairie ecosystem.
Con Slobodchikoff, a Berkeley-educated scientist who has researched prairie dogs for ten years, says in the July 17, 1997 Tucson Weekly, 'Here's an animal people think of as simplistic vermin, yet it has a complex cognitive brain that can form concepts and remember things for long periods. I think prairie dogs have a lot to teach us.' Scientists have learned of astonishing similarities between prairie dogs and human beings. The burrow system used by prairie dogs is much like the way humans set up house. The rodents have a listening post room just under the surface, set off from their main burrow. A separate room is used as a toilet and is emptied from time to time. A nesting/sleeping chamber is lined with dried grass and elevated from the bottom of the tunnels to keep water from flowing into this area. Prairie dogs possess an extremely sophisticated natural animal language and are able to tell other prairie dogs of approaching predators, identify the predator, and in the case of humans, describe the clothing and even whether he or she is carrying a gun. When a prairie dog detects danger, he lets out a loud call to warn other members of the colony. Scientists are puzzled by the alerter's willingness to risk his own safety by calling attention to himself to save other members of the town. Prairie dogs seem to have an incredibly strong sense of family loyalty. Movement between social units is uncommon; however, among family members, prairie dogs greet each other with a kiss-like gesture as a form of recognition.
More than 99 percent of the potential habitat for prairie dogs is on private property. Although some farmers are willing to tolerate small numbers of prairie dogs on their land, most consider them pests and choose to control their numbers. Ranchers have forever despised the animal, believing it eats grass rightly meant for their cattle. Although prairie dogs do remove as much as seven percent of the available grass, recent research has shown that the remaining grass has more nutritional quality. Animals put on more weight if they feed on prairie dog towns than if they do not. Prairie dogs are fertilizing machines, whose endless grass clipping increases the protein content and digestibility of grass, thereby providing ranchers with some compensation. Given the choice, herds prefer grazing on prairie dog towns. Mike Fox, a Gros Ventre Indian who majored in American history and who manages the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana, says in the National Geographic article that although there is less grass per acre around prairie dog towns, 'the grass on dog towns is the best grass around. The bison go ...

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