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Released: April 24, 2003

Prairie Dog Backgrounder: It Lives on the Prairie But Itís Not a Pooch

MANHATTAN, Kan. Ė French explorers called the burrowing plant-eaters "little dogs," because the animals make a barking sound when dangerís near. The "dogs" are actually a big cinnamon-colored ground squirrel, but the name has stuck for the five species of prairie dog found only in North America.

The best-known species is the black-tailed prairie dog (although only the tip of its tail is black). It lives in the short-grass plains stretching from north of North Dakota to south of Texas.

Three years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this widespread group may have to go on the threatened-species list. Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks estimates 133,000 black-tailed prairie dogs now reside in the Heartland state.

Most meat-eating wildlife will eat prairie dogs, said Charles Lee, wildlife expert with Kansas State University Research and Extension. This includes everything from the raptors overhead to wily coyotes.

Humans, on the other hand, have a kind of love-hate relationship with the roly-poly rodent.

"Prairie dogs are fairly gentle, family-oriented creatures. Theyíre vocal and make a number of noticeably different sounds. They recognize each other by touching teeth, which sort of looks like theyíre kissing," Lee said. "In zoos, prairie dogs are a big hit with kids. Prairie dogs also are showing up on the exotic pet market."

In the wild, their current U.S. range crosses 11 states, and their population numbers in the millions. But official estimates put that range at less than 2 percent of the acreage prairie dogs inhabited in the late 1800s, when they numbered in the billions.

At that time, a visitor reported seeing one prairie dog town that was the size of Belgium.

"People exaggerated back then. But itís quite possible that what looked like one town was lots of separate colonies, close to each other. For example, they could easily have spread that way from Texas, through Oklahoma and Kansas, and into Colorado," Lee said.

The little barkers quickly picked up a bad reputation among early settlers, he added. They damaged row crops and alfalfa fields and directly competed with livestock for forage. (Sometimes prairie dogs donít eat the forage, but merely clip it, in order to see predators more easily.) Their holes could break the leg of a riding or plow horse, guided by an unwary human.

"U.S. Biological Survey research in 1901 said 32 prairie dogs could eat as much as a sheep, and 256 could eat as much as a cow," Lee said. "That pretty much remained unquestioned until the 1970s. So, early settlers and farmers through the Dust Bowl days were largely responsible for the population reductions."

Research since the Ď70s has produced mixed results, he said. But one interesting fact has emerged. Prairie dogs definitely do mess up fields and reduce the amount of forage available. But they prefer C-4 (warm-season) grasses and forbs (broadleaf weeds). With those gone, more growing room is available for cool-season grasses and forbs, which have a higher nutrient content. And, until prairie dogs get crowded, their "clipping" has the same effect as mowing a lawn Ė the remaining grass stays immature, tender and higher in nutrients.

North America still has seven giant-size colonies: four on Indian lands in South Dakota and Montana, two on national grasslands managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (Buffalo Gap in South Dakota and Thunder Basin in Wyoming), and one on private land in Mexico. Prairie dog colonies in Kansas generally range from 10 to 100 burrows an acre.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service says thereís been a prairie dog increase in some states. But over the past 15 to 20 years, thereís been a sharp decline in total population, largely due to sylvatic plague and humansí eradication efforts," Lee said. "That mostly has to do with other states, though. And, fortunately, the one state without any plague cases yet is South Dakota, which has four of the remaining big colonies."

Prairie dogs have lived as far east in Kansas as the Flint Hills, he said. They prefer short grass and flat land, however, so now mostly live west of Salina-Wichita in both urban and rural areas. They donít require a water source, getting the moisture they need from the plants they eat.

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Kathleen Ward, Communications Specialist
kward@oznet.ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Charlie Lee is at 785-532-5734