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Released: April 24, 2003

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog: Pest, Pet or Plains’ Prey?

MANHATTAN, Kan. – The subject is small, but the issue is not. Kansans have been working since February 2000 to develop a new policy on prairie dogs, which current law treats as a pest. A state working group, a series of public hearings and two legislative bills later, the issue remains unresolved.

The spark for this activity came when several environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species. After a thorough scientific review, the FWS agreed with the petitioners. But, citing species with higher priority, the FWS said it wouldn’t list the small rodent ... yet.

In response, controversy erupted across the High Plains from the Canadian to the Mexican borders, according to Kansas State University wildlife expert Charles Lee.

(Prairie Dog, That Is)

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Prairie dogs have become a hot topic in some parts of Kansas and surrounding states. Their natural predators in Kansas include:

* Badger - a big weasel and earth-mover that can outdig a man with a shovel. The badger waddles because it’s built like a Humvee and has pigeon-toed, heavily clawed front feet. It’s got a thick, protective ring of neck muscles and a sense of smell second only to dogs’. When cornered, it’s ferocious and can produce a smell much like a skunk’s. It has thick grizzled fur (used for fine paint brushes) with a white stripe from upturned snout to shoulders.

* Black-footed ferret - an endangered species of weasel that biologists are having good luck in bringing back from near-extinction. Identified by naturalist and painter John J. Audubon, the black-footed ferret was first treated as a hoax. People thought Audubon had pieced together a pelt from black, white and yellowish-brown fur. The black-tailed species eats black-tailed prairie dogs and then uses their burrow as a home.

* Coyote - native to the arid west, but now spread coast to coast in both urban and rural areas – perhaps because settlers made such big inroads in the coyote-eating wolf, bear and puma populations. The coyote is a long-legged canine with yellow eyes, prominent ears, a bushy tail and grizzled fur. It’s known for its vocalizing and cunning. It can run up to 40 mph and will eat most anything it can chew. The coyote usually tops the list of wildlife that sometimes prey on pasture-grazing livestock.

* Ferruginous hawk - called the eagle hawk because of its size (2 feet long, 4-feet wing span), called gopher hawk because it loves gophers and ground squirrels, but named "ferruginous" for its red-brown rusty color (light or dark). When this hawk flies overhead, its legs can form a dark "V" on lighter belly feathers. Although still common in Kansas, it’s gone from some other historic habitats, so now is a "rare" species.

* Golden eagle – a yard-long, dark-brown bird with a 6- to 7-feet wingspan, golden-brown nape, feathered legs and dark-colored beak. Up to 70,000 live in the western United States in a variety of habitats. Breeding success may depend on prey, particularly jackrabbits. All eagles, hawks and other birds of prey are protected by federal law and treaties, but the golden and bald eagles get special treatment.

* Prairie rattlesnake - a poisonous, blotchy yellow-brown to green-gray snake common from Utah to the Missouri River and from Canada to Mexico. It’s known for hibernating through winter in groups of several hundred to several thousand. It finds food and shelter in prairie dog burrows. Its young are born live and are able to strike with super-concentrated venom. Adult venom is at least twice as toxic as the diamondback’s; the prairie rattler is less dangerous only because it can store less than one-tenth as much venom. A maximum 5 feet long, the species rattles its tail when alarmed or irate.

* Swift fox - the smallest North American wild "dog" – about the size of a housecat. Once widespread, the only stable populations now are in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming. But, the swift fox is being reintroduced in other states and Canada. Its fur is gray on top, orange-tan on sides and legs, cream-white on throat and chest, and black on tail tip and sides of the nose. It eats what it can catch – roadkill, mammals, insects, birds, grass. For protection, it depends on speed (37 mph), plus it spends more time underground than any other canine (in up to 13 dug and "borrowed" burrows).

* Other prairie dog "fans":

+Burrowing owl – an endangered species with proportionally long legs that can make it look like a short, fat owl on stilts. Because it has no ear tufts, this small owl’s head is a speckled, round fluffball with oversized "eyebrows" and eyes. It differs from other owls in that it lives underground year-round – often taking over another burrowing mammal’s tunnels, rather than digging its own. Plus, it’s active during the daytime, prefers short-grass prairies and tends to eat only insects.

+ Mountain plover – a shorebird that spends its life avoiding water. Once numerous in the west, the mountain plover continued to decline even after laws protected it from hunting in 1926. It now nests from Montana to New Mexico, but is rare in Kansas. It overwinters in Mexico, Texas and California. It prefers the insects in prairie dog-type country. It needs no water source other than its food. It also blends with prairie scenery, because it resembles a pale killdeer with no chest stripes. That coloration may be why it tends to freeze rather than fly when it’s scared – even though it’s able to migrate thousands of miles every year.

--Source: Kansas State University Research and Extension

"In Kansas’ public hearings, we found people can get pretty emotional about what may happen if the 11 states involved don’t find reasonable ways to keep the black-tailed prairie dog off the list," he said.

Most Kansans seem to want this result, said Lee, who is K-State Research and Extension’s wildlife damage control specialist.

What they don’t agree about is why the state should help the black-tailed prairie dog. So, they have equally varied ideas on how to avoid the threat of its being listed as a threatened species.

In ways, their views can seem to have remarkably little to do with the prairie dog itself.

"That’s not too surprising. A recent government survey found the great majority of people in the habitat states think prairie dogs are a low-priority environmental problem or a non-issue," Lee said.

FWS updates have indicated concern, however, that plague has begun to wipe out whole prairie dog colonies in about two-thirds of their current range. Other High Plains mammals have developed resistance to the disease, which was "shipped" into the United States via San Francisco in the early 1900s. For prairie dogs, the disease is still 100 percent fatal.

"Just the word ‘plague’ can be pretty frightening. But in Kansas, it’s almost a non-issue, too. First, prairie dogs can’t give plague to people, although scientists suspect wildlife’s fleas may be able to transmit the disease," Lee said. "Second, the plague spread in just 40 years from California to the tier of Kansas counties on the Colorado border. In the 40 years since, it hasn’t moved any further east that we know of."

So, Kansans’ range of views often find icons in some of the wildlife that the prairie dog benefits. Eagles and large hawks attack prairie dogs by diving from the sky. Foxes and coyotes are on the lookout for unwary prairie dogs at ground level. Prairie rattlesnakes, badgers and (endangered) black-footed ferrets go into the burrow system itself to attack. Snakes, ferrets and (rare) burrowing owls often use prairie dog tunnels as their home. And the mountain plover likes prairie dogs because it prefers the insects found in overgrazed, even heavily eroded pastures.

"Mainly, we’re talking about protecting a rodent that many other species of wildlife use as food or use for the burrows prairie dogs create," Lee said.

Prairie dogs aren’t really a problem on public lands in Kansas, he added. But complicating the debate about how to handle them on privately-owned land are such thorny issues as:

* Federal vs. state vs. individual rights.

* Lack of clear research data on whether prairie dogs reduce livestock performance or destroy land at particular population levels.

* A first-time-ever need to decide if Kansas landowners are liable for wildlife that use their land.

* How to define the public’s "common good" in terms of non-game wildlife.

* The possibility of change in Kansas’ notably successful approach to wildlife management.

These related issues don’t necessarily pit urban against rural residents, Lee said. Prairie dogs can be a pest in pastures – viewed as turning money-making ranches into wasteland. Even so, they also are making a nuisance of themselves in such population centers as Hutchinson, Great Bend and Dodge City.

A prairie dog burrow can wipe out a small yard or bury a sidewalk under a mounded dirt dike that surrounds a funnel-shaped hole and centers on a circle of cleared earth that can be up to 10 feet wide. The hole leads to a tunnel that goes down several feet and then sideways in branches up to 15 feet long.

But the problem is rarely that small. Prairie dog adults tend to build more than one burrow. And, because they’re social creatures, they develop those multiple homes in colonies – prairie dog towns.

"Zoos have had to learn how to fence prairie dogs in, keep them from burrowing out," Lee said. "But there is no cost-effective way for Hutchinson or a ranch owner to install that kind of fencing."

Under current state law, if property owners believe prairie dogs are interfering with a farm or ranch business, they can poison or shoot the problem. Communities sometimes asphalt over burrows, just as they pave over ant hills.

"Complete control isn’t economically feasible by any method. Poisoning is the most effective for actually reducing prairie dog numbers for awhile, but it makes people nervous. The assumption is: The kinds of poisons used in the past are probably a reason why the burrowing owl and black-footed ferret are endangered now," Lee said. "Besides, all species have value. We need to be able to control individual animals when they cause damage. But in no way do we have to eradicate whole species."

Finding that balance between the well-being of humans and wildlife is what the specialist’s job is all about. He believes the state’s quest for a prairie dog policy is similar – which means consensus, not total agreement, is the likely outcome. And finding consensus among widely differing views takes time.

"Perhaps we could build in incentives for landowners to keep our prairie dogs at certain levels," he said. "For example, live-trapping for sale isn’t allowed now, but there is a market for prairie dogs to sell as pets. Fee hunting for prairie dogs isn’t widely used, either, but it might be a way for landowners to build their forage loss into a workable management plan – to raise both livestock and game-animal prairie dogs."

Lee hopes to institute research next year to determine the real impact of various prairie dog population levels, their burrowing and pasture munching. Other studies have found pronghorn antelope and bison prefer prairie dog towns for grazing, evidently because the forage that survives the small rodents’ activities tends to be highly nutritious. (So far, sheep and cattle seem to have no preference.)

"We need to know how much forage we can lose before livestock performance is affected. We need an idea of where any increase in forage quality gets outstripped by the loss in forage quantity," Lee said.


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
K-State Research& Extension News

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