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Prairie Dogs

It seems hard to put in perspective, but prior to European settlement, prairie dogs may have been the most abundant herbivore on the Great Plains. However, their range has been reduced to about 2% of what it used to be, due to poisoning, shooting, loss of habitat, and other factors. 

In North Dakota, prairie dogs' range is largely southwest of the Missouri River. However, there are also introduced colonies at Fort Stevenson State Park south of Garrison, and White Horse Hill National Game Preserve near Fort Totten. Prairie dog towns now occupy about 34,000 acres in the state. 

Prairie dogs avoid tall vegetation. As such, they are a species of the shortgrass prairie where they live in colonies, or “towns.” The town is composed of family groups, or coteries, which generally consist of an adult male, several breeding females, as well as some immature young. 

Prairie dogs’ burrows will have several entrances, will go down 3 to 10 feet deep, run laterally 16 to 30 feet, and contain a nest chamber. The distinctive mound around the entrance provides an elevated platform from which the prairie dogs can scan the area for predators as well as aid in circulation of the burrow, and perhaps prevent flooding of the burrow.

Communication among prairie dogs is well developed. Alarm calls, for example, are known to contain information on the color of a threat. Predators include badgers, black-footed ferrets, snakes, and raptors. Plague is also known to eliminate an entire prairie dog town in a matter of weeks. 

It might surprise some of you, but prairie dogs do not hibernate — they remain active throughout the winter. Their diet is largely grasses and grass-like plants. If all goes well, breeding females will produce one litter a year with an average of four young per litter. 

Prairie dogs may be a much-maligned animal, but they are considered a keystone species. Species associated with prairie dog towns include black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls. So, the next time you hear or see something about prairie dogs, give some consideration to their biology, ecology, and importance to grassland systems. 

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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