Prairie dog a keystone species in its natural habitat, outside its environment they can be a pestPrairie dogs are a keystone species in nature, but when out on the loose, they can create many problems for farmers and ranchers.
By: Royal McGregor, The Dickinson Press
Prairie dogs are a keystone species in nature, but when out on the loose, they can create many problems for farmers and ranchers.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has many prairie dog towns, and in 2011, the colonies combined for 11,000 acres.
“We map the acreage of the prairie dog towns, and it varies from year to year depending on availability of vegetation,” said Eileen Andes, TRNP chief of interpretation. “The last couple years there’s been a lot of vegetation because it was so wet. The acreage of prairie dog towns actually went down a little bit.”
Being a keystone species means that prairie dogs and their towns serve an important purpose for the rest of the animals in the habitat. Prairie dogs function as food for eagles, hawks, snakes and coyotes, while the towns provide habitat for snakes, spiders and burrowing owls.
“In a national park, they are native wildlife, so they are protected,” Andes said. “They provide a really important ecological function.”
When prairie dogs are out of the national park and move to private land, that’s when being a nuisance can begin.
Prairie dogs can be hunted and Dan Hoenke, North Dakota Game and Fish southwest game warden supervisor, said residents don’t need a license, but non-residents need a non-game, non-resident license to shoot them.
“They’re hunted by a wide variety of hunters,” Hoenke said. “They like to go out and shoot prairie dogs to keep their population under control.”
As for eating prairie dogs, Hoenke said it isn’t the best idea. It isn’t even a good idea to pick the rodents up.
“Prairie dogs are known to carry different diseases — monkeypox, the bubonic plague — so it’s really not a good idea to be handling them if you don’t have to,” he said.
The vegetation around a prairie dog town is barren and the grass or plants are very short. The reason why is so the lookouts can spot predators or dangers approaching the prairie dog towns.
“They chew down the vegetation, so you will see prairie dog town’s vegetation is very short, so then they can see around them,” Andes said.
However, the grazing around the towns is beneficial as bison, elk and pronghorn antelope are notable around those areas.
“They are some grazing animals that are associated with the prairie dog towns,” Andes said. “The kind of vegetation on the edge of prairie dog towns makes it better for those species.”
Andes said TRNP is putting together a plan, but she isn’t worried when prairie dog towns grow in size. The natural factors come into play to control populations. Though when prairie dogs do settle into a place, they usually go for land that has previously been disturbed — for instance the side of the road.
“We are actually working on prairie dog management plan,” Andes said. “It’s not complete, but there are natural controls on a prairie dog population — predation and disease. We don’t consider when a prairie dog town gets bigger to be out of control.”