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Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in Arizona

October 9, 2009

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (BTPD) have returned to their historic home in Arizona with a little help from the Arizona Game & Fish Department and Bureau of Land Management. This week, AGFD and BLM released another 27 transplants from New Mexico at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area southeast of Tucson. This is the second release at Las Cienegas, and adults from the original release last October have already produced pups.

Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs aren’t canines, of course, but rodents in the squirrel family. The sharp alarm calls that earned them their name are actually a complex and adaptable language that transmits detailed information about goings-on in their community. The name probably kept them from becoming favorite targets of hungry pioneers and greedy market hunters, but it couldn’t save them from persecution as competitors with livestock.

Two hundred years ago, BTPD “towns” numbering in the thousands to millions of inhabitants were found from Texas to Montana. The intensely social nature that inspired wonder in early explorers such as Lewis and Clark (who sent a live specimen back to President Thomas Jefferson) doomed them when cattle replaced the great herds of bison, pronghorns, and elk. In the late nineteenth century, newly-minted cattle barons who saw the colonial rodents as competitors taking food out of the mouths of their stock persuaded the government to launch a campaign of extermination that persists to this day. Through aggressive programs of shooting and poisoning, BTPDs were eliminated from the arid grasslands of southeastern Arizona by the 1960s.

This wanton destruction was a disaster not only for the dogs themselves but for entire grassland ecosystems. Prairie dogs are keystone species, altering their habitat in ways that benefit other animals such as Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Plovers, Burrowing Owls, Pronghorns, American Bison, critically endangered Black-footed Ferrets, and over a hundred more common species. The dogs’ range management activities include suppressing woody vegetation, cultivating tasty and nutritious forbs, recycling nutrients from their underground latrines, and providing protected nest and den sites in landscapes where shelter is normally scarce. Their elaborate burrow systems also significantly enhance recharge of aquifers essential for irrigated agriculture and other human activities.

In 1968, Audubon magazine published an article titled “Dark Days in Dog Town” about the federal poisoning program. Here’s hoping that those days are over and a brighter, more rational day is dawning in our relationship with prairie dogs.

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