Cynomys ludovicianus - (Ord, 1815)
Black-tailed Prairie Dog
Other English Common Names: black-tailed prairie dog
Taxonomic Status: Accepted
Related ITIS Name(s): Cynomys ludovicianus (Ord, 1815) (TSN 180186)
French Common Names: chien de prairie
Unique Identifier: ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.100941
Element Code: AMAFB06010
Informal Taxonomy: Animals, Vertebrates - Mammals - Rodents
Image 11098

© Jeff Nadler

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus
Animalia Craniata Mammalia Rodentia Sciuridae Cynomys
Genus Size: B - Very small genus (2-5 species)
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Concept Reference
Concept Reference: Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder (editors). 1993. Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. Second edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. xviii + 1206 pp. Available online at:
Concept Reference Code: B93WIL01NAUS
Name Used in Concept Reference: Cynomys ludovicianus
Taxonomic Comments: Hall (1981) listed two subspecies of black-tailed prairie dog, the nominate form and the Arizona prairie dog (C. ludovicianus arizonensis). Recent genetic study suggests that the Arizona form does not qualify for subspecies status (Chesser 1979). Hoffmeister (1986) regarded the species as monotypic. Thorington and Hoffmann (in Wilson and Reeder 2005) nevertheless recognized two subspecies (arizonensis and ludovicianus). Some question still exists about the possible subspecific status of certain populations, especially that in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico (Hubbard 1992).
Conservation Status

NatureServe Status

Global Status: G4
Global Status Last Reviewed: 04Apr2016
Global Status Last Changed: 08Mar2006
Ranking Methodology Used: Ranked by inspection
Rounded Global Status: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Relatively large range in the plains region of central North America; many occurrences and large population size (millions), but extent of occupied habitat and abundance have been reduced from historical levels by about 98 percent; overall, threats are rated as moderate and not as serious as previsouly believed; long-term trend outlook is one of slow decline. The species appears to be secure but at a greatly reduced level.
Nation: United States
National Status: N4 (08Mar2006)
Nation: Canada
National Status: N2 (22Jan2016)

U.S. & Canada State/Province Status
Due to latency between updates made in state, provincial or other NatureServe Network databases and when they appear on NatureServe Explorer, for state or provincial information you may wish to contact the data steward in your jurisdiction to obtain the most current data. Please refer to our Distribution Data Sources to find contact information for your jurisdiction.
United States Arizona (SX,S1), Colorado (S3), Kansas (S3), Montana (S3), Nebraska (S3), New Mexico (S2), North Dakota (SU), Oklahoma (S3), South Dakota (S4), Texas (S3), Wyoming (S2)
Canada Alberta (SNA), Saskatchewan (S2)

Other Statuses

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Lead Region: R6 - Rocky Mountain
Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA) Schedule 1/Annexe 1 Status: T (05Jun2003)
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC): Threatened (25Nov2011)
Comments on COSEWIC: Reason for designation: This small mammal is restricted to a relatively small population in southern Saskatchewan. The change in status from Special Concern to Threatened is based mainly on the threat of increased drought, and sylvatic plague, both of which would be expected to cause significant population declines if they occur frequently. Drought events are predicted to increase in frequency due to a changing climate. Sylvatic plague was first recorded in 2010. Although the Canadian population is in a protected area, it exists within a small area, and is isolated from other populations, all of which are located in the United States.

Status history: Designated Special Concern in April 1978. Status re-examined and confirmed in April 1988, April 1999 and November 2000. Status re-examined and designated Threatened in November 2011.

IUCN Red List Category: LC - Least concern

NatureServe Global Conservation Status Factors

Range Extent: 200,000-2,500,000 square km (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)
Range Extent Comments: This is primarily a Great Plains species, originally occurring from extreme southern Saskatchewan (Frenchman River Valley) and Montana south through the western and central Great Plains to the desert grasslands of western Texas, New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, northeastern Sonora, and northern Chihuahua (Merriam 1902, Koford 1958). As a result of eradication efforts, the species was extirpated in southeastern Arizona (Van Pelt 1992), southwestern New Mexico (Hubbard 1992), and locally in many other areas throughout the range. Reintroduction efforts began at the Las Cienegas National
Conservation Area in southern Arizona in 2008. See Goodwin (1995) for a review of the biogeographic history of prairie dogs.

Area of Occupancy: 2,501 to >12,500 4-km2 grid cells
Area of Occupancy Comments: Area of occupancy is about 7,454 square kilometers in the United States, 200 sq km in Mexico, and 10 sq km in Canada (USFWS 2004).

Number of Occurrences: > 300
Number of Occurrences Comments: This species is represented by a very large number of occurrences or subpopulations.

Population Size: >1,000,000 individuals
Population Size Comments: Total population size in the early 2000s was estimated at between 3,684,000 and 33,156,000; using average density figures, the estimated population was 18,420,000 (USFWS 2004).

Number of Occurrences with Good Viability/Integrity: Many (41-125)
Viability/Integrity Comments: Most occurrences are represented by relatively small populations, and it is unknown how many are viable in the long term, but certainly there are at least several dozen occurrences with good viability.

Overall Threat Impact: Medium
Overall Threat Impact Comments: Major threat ranked is that of the introduced disease, sylvatic plague.

Threats fall into four main categories. 1) Exotic disease, particularly sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis) to which prairie dogs are highly susceptible. 2) Loss of habitat to agriculture and urbanization. 3) Habitat fragmentation and its many effects (Miller et al. 1994). 4) Control activities by government, private organizations, and individuals via poisoning and shooting.

EXOTIC SPECIES/DISEASE: Sylvatic plague was introduced to North America around 1899 (Cully 1989) and first reported in black-tailed prairie dogs from Texas in the mid-1940s (Reading et al. 1989). It is a serious threat given its pervasiveness and efficacy, as it can kill more than 99% of prairie dogs in a colony (Cully 1989, Oldemeyer et al. 1993), and numbers do not appear to fully recover (USFWS 2002). Though prairie dogs have persisted in the presence of plague since about 1900 and prairie dog numbers are high given habitat loss and control efforts, plague is still of concern to local populations and for long-term persistence. Plague is not well documented in black-tailed prairie dogs across their range though there is no reason to believe that plague is not as significant in black-tailed as it is in white-tailed prairie dogs (Cully 1992). On large areas originally selected as possible ferret reintroduction sites, declines of up to 90 per cent from about 1985-2000 are "generally attributed to sylvatic plague" (USFWS 2000). Only about 10 percent of the historical range is both plague-free and available (not cropland) (USFWS 2000). Widespread outbreaks in 2001 may indicate the beginning of an 'up' cycle in plague occurrence (USFWS 2002).

USFWS (2004) noted that: (1) High exposure doses of plague bacilli may be necessary for disease contraction in some individuals; (2) limited immune response has been observed in some individuals; (3) a population dynamic may have developed in low-density, isolated populations that contributes to the persistence of these populations; (4) the apparent ability of some sites to recover to pre-plague levels after a plague epizootic; and (5) approximately one-third of the species' historic range has not been affected by plague. Based on this and on recent estimates of occupied habitat, USFWS (2004) concluded that plague no longer appears to be as significant a threat as previously thought and that plague in combination with other factors is not likely to cause the black-tailed prairie dog to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.

HABITAT LOSS AND DEGRADATION: Habitat loss has been an important factor in prairie dog declines in the past. Cheatheam (1977) estimated that about 36% of the land area in regions used by prairie dogs was covered by water developments, urban expansion, cropland, and improved pasture. Similarly, Bishop and Culbertson (1976) detected extensive colony loss on river terraces as a result of farming activities. Conversion of native prairie to farmland does not necessarily represent habitat loss to prairie dogs, but farmers will not tolerate prairie dogs in their fields (Merriam 1902). Similarly, prairie dogs prosper in empty urban lots and fields, yet this is not often tolerated given the plague risk. However, in New Mexico, urban (Gunnison's) prairie dogs are often allowed to remain because colony fleas are killed instead (Brown 1992). Still, developments that destroy patches of grassland (e.g., roads, buildings, water impoundments) result in loss of potential prairie dog habitat and restriction of area for colony expansion.

USFWS (2004) concluded that present or threatened habitat destruction is not a threat to the species, although considerable effects due to this factor have occurred in the past. Additionally, USFWS concluded that present or threatened habitat modification as it relates to plague is not a significant threat to the species.

CONTROL: Control by humans, interacting with low forage production, is probably the main cause of loss of the prairie dog from the more arid parts of its range, including southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona (Cully 1992, Hubbard 1992) and Texas (see map in Cheatheam 1977). For most of the 20th century, Animal Damage Control, its forerunners, and other control agencies worked hard to eliminate prairie dogs over wide areas (Cully 1992). Towns were poisoned primarily with strychnine and zinc-phosphide baits (e.g., oats mixed with rodenticide). Poisoning was immediately followed up with extermination of any remaining living prairie dogs (Cully 1992). Indeed, control efforts, with some help from plague, resulted in a reduction in prairie dog acreage from 700,000,000 to 1,500,000 in 1971 (Cain et al. 1971, in Fagerstone and Biggins 1986; Cully 1989). Today prairie dog poisoning efforts are limited to local, problem populations and entail control, not extermination. Public control agencies, including ADC, do very little prairie dog control work, as most control is practiced by land managers (Turman 1992). These agencies do provide technical information and assistance, however. Vosburgh and Irby (1998) discuss the effect of recreational shooting on colonies.

USFWS (2004) acknowledged extant and potentially significant local population reductions due to chemical control of prairie dogs but concluded that impacts due to this factor are not a threat to the extent that the species could become endangered in the foreseeable future.

USFWS (2004) acknowledged that recreational shooting can reduce population densities at specific sites and that extirpation possibly may have occurred in isolated circumstances due to this factor. However, USFWS noted that populations can recover from very low numbers following intensive recreational shooting and therefore concluded that effects due to recreational shooting do not constitute a significant threat.

Distribution, abundance, and trend data indicate that inadequate regulatory mechanisms are not limiting black-tailed prairie dog populations at present, nor are they likely to within the foreseeable future (USFWS 2004).

Short-term Trend: Decline of <30% to relatively stable
Short-term Trend Comments: Currently, the species is declining in some areas, increasing in others; overall trend at present is probably stable or slightly decreasing, with a long-term outlook of slow decline (USFWS 2002).

A small stable population exists in Canada (Laing, 1988 COSEWIC report; USFWS 2004). Range and abundance appear to be relatively stable in Mexico in recent decades (USFWS 2004).

Long-term Trend: Decline of >90%
Long-term Trend Comments: Area of occupancy has been reduced from about 40 million hectares historically to about 766,400 hectares (USFWS2004), a decline of about 98 per cent.

Range contractions have occurred in the southwestern portion of the range in Arizona, western New Mexico, and western Texas through conversion of grasslands to desert shrublands; in the eastern portion of the range, range contractions are largely due to habitat destruction through cropland development in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas (see USFWS 2004). Approximately 37 percent of the historical habitat has been converted to cropland, now generally unavailable due to continuous disturbance.

Prairie dog towns formerly were much larger than at present. For example, one town in central Oklahoma stretched 35 km (Strong 1960, Tyler 1968). In 1998, maximum town size in Oklahoma was 427 ha; length 2.1 km) (Lomolino and Smith 2001).

Intrinsic Vulnerability: Moderately vulnerable
Intrinsic Vulnerability Comments: Reproduce slowly (for a rodent) and survivorship is low (see Ecology Comments), despite popular belief (Hoogland 2001).

Environmental Specificity: Moderate. Generalist or community with some key requirements scarce.

Other NatureServe Conservation Status Information

Inventory Needs: Inventories are needed range-wide, and they should determine locations and sizes of colonies, ownership, and presence of plague.

Protection Needs: Few colonies are provided protection, even in parks. Large, core occurrences need protection from population control.

Global Range: (200,000-2,500,000 square km (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)) This is primarily a Great Plains species, originally occurring from extreme southern Saskatchewan (Frenchman River Valley) and Montana south through the western and central Great Plains to the desert grasslands of western Texas, New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, northeastern Sonora, and northern Chihuahua (Merriam 1902, Koford 1958). As a result of eradication efforts, the species was extirpated in southeastern Arizona (Van Pelt 1992), southwestern New Mexico (Hubbard 1992), and locally in many other areas throughout the range. Reintroduction efforts began at the Las Cienegas National
Conservation Area in southern Arizona in 2008. See Goodwin (1995) for a review of the biogeographic history of prairie dogs.

U.S. States and Canadian Provinces

Due to latency between updates made in state, provincial or other NatureServe Network databases and when they appear on NatureServe Explorer, for state or provincial information you may wish to contact the data steward in your jurisdiction to obtain the most current data. Please refer to our Distribution Data Sources to find contact information for your jurisdiction.
Color legend for Distribution Map
Endemism: occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

U.S. & Canada State/Province Distribution
United States AZextirpated, CO, KS, MT, ND, NE, NM, OK, SD, TX, WY
Canada ABexotic, SK

Range Map
Note: Range depicted for New World only. The scale of the maps may cause narrow coastal ranges or ranges on small islands not to appear. Not all vagrant or small disjunct occurrences are depicted. For migratory birds, some individuals occur outside of the passage migrant range depicted. For information on how to obtain shapefiles of species ranges see our Species Mapping pages at

Range Map Compilers: Sechrest, 2002

U.S. Distribution by County Help
State County Name (FIPS Code)
AZ Pima (04019)*
CO Adams (08001), Arapahoe (08005), Baca (08009), Bent (08011), Boulder (08013), Broomfield (08014), Cheyenne (08017), Crowley (08025), El Paso (08041), Elbert (08039), Fremont (08043), Jefferson (08059), Kiowa (08061), Kit Carson (08063), Larimer (08069), Las Animas (08071), Lincoln (08073), Logan (08075), Morgan (08087), Otero (08089), Prowers (08099), Pueblo (08101), Washington (08121), Weld (08123), Yuma (08125)
MT Big Horn (30003), Blaine (30005), Carbon (30009), Carter (30011), Cascade (30013), Chouteau (30015), Custer (30017), Fallon (30025), Fergus (30027), Garfield (30033), Golden Valley (30037), Hill (30041), Jefferson (30043), Judith Basin (30045), Lewis and Clark (30049), Liberty (30051), McCone (30055), Musselshell (30065), Petroleum (30069), Phillips (30071), Powder River (30075), Prairie (30079), Richland (30083), Rosebud (30087), Stillwater (30095), Sweet Grass (30097), Toole (30101), Treasure (30103), Valley (30105), Wheatland (30107), Yellowstone (30111)
ND Bowman (38011)*
NE Banner (31007), Chase (31029), Cheyenne (31033), Dundy (31057), Fillmore (31059)*, Garden (31069), Gosper (31073), Keith (31101), Lincoln (31111), Morrill (31123), Scotts Bluff (31157), Sioux (31165)
NM Chaves (35005), Colfax (35007), Curry (35009), De Baca (35011), Harding (35021), Lea (35025), Lincoln (35027), Mora (35033), Otero (35035), Quay (35037), Roosevelt (35041), San Miguel (35047), Sierra (35051), Socorro (35053), Union (35059)
OK Comanche (40031)*, Jackson (40065)*, Kingfisher (40073)*, Major (40093), Texas (40139)*
TX Andrews (48003), Archer (48009), Bailey (48017), Baylor (48023), Borden (48033), Carson (48065), Childress (48075), Clay (48077), Cochran (48079), Collingsworth (48087), Cottle (48101), Crane (48103), Crockett (48105), Culberson (48109), Dallam (48111), Dawson (48115), Deaf Smith (48117), Ector (48135), Gaines (48165), Garza (48169), Glasscock (48173), Gray (48179), Hall (48191), Hansford (48195), Hardeman (48197), Hartley (48205), Haskell (48207), Hemphill (48211), Hockley (48219), Howard (48227), Hudspeth (48229), Hutchinson (48233), Irion (48235), Jeff Davis (48243), Jones (48253), King (48269), Lipscomb (48295), Lynn (48305), Martin (48317), Midland (48329), Montague (48337), Moore (48341), Motley (48345), Nolan (48353), Ochiltree (48357), Oldham (48359), Parmer (48369), Pecos (48371), Potter (48375), Reagan (48383), Reeves (48389), Roberts (48393), Schleicher (48413), Sherman (48421), Sutton (48435), Taylor (48441), Terry (48445), Tom Green (48451), Upton (48461), Ward (48475), Wheeler (48483), Wichita (48485), Wilbarger (48487), Yoakum (48501)
WY Albany (56001), Big Horn (56003), Campbell (56005), Carbon (56007), Converse (56009), Crook (56011), Fremont (56013), Goshen (56015), Hot Springs (56017), Johnson (56019), Laramie (56021), Lincoln (56023), Natrona (56025), Niobrara (56027), Park (56029), Platte (56031), Sheridan (56033), Sublette (56035), Sweetwater (56037), Uinta (56041), Washakie (56043)*, Weston (56045)
* Extirpated/possibly extirpated
U.S. Distribution by Watershed Help
Watershed Region Help Watershed Name (Watershed Code)
10 Jefferson (10020005)+, Boulder (10020006)+, Upper Missouri (10030101)+, Upper Missouri-Dearborn (10030102)+, Sun (10030104)+, Belt (10030105)+, Marias (10030203)+, Teton (10030205)+, Bullwhacker-Dog (10040101)+, Arrow (10040102)+, Judith (10040103)+, Fort Peck Reservoir (10040104)+, Big Dry (10040105)+, Little Dry (10040106)+, Upper Musselshell (10040201)+, Middle Musselshell (10040202)+, Flatwillow (10040203)+, Box Elder (10040204)+, Lower Musselshell (10040205)+, Upper Milk (10050002)+, Middle Milk (10050004)+, Big Sandy (10050005)+, Sage (10050006)+, Peoples (10050009)+, Whitewater (10050011)+, Lower Milk (10050012)+, Frenchman (10050013)+, Beaver (10050014)+, Rock (10050015)+, Prarie Elk-Wolf (10060001)+, Upper Yellowstone (10070002)+, Upper Yellowstone-Lake Basin (10070004)+, Clarks Fork Yellowstone (10070006)+, Upper Yellowstone-Pompeys Pillar (10070007)+, Pryor (10070008)+, Popo Agie (10080003)+, Badwater (10080006)+, Upper Bighorn (10080007)+, Nowood (10080008)+*, Greybull (10080009)+, Big Horn Lake (10080010)+, Dry (10080011)+, Shoshone (10080014)+, Lower Bighorn (10080015)+, Little Bighorn (10080016)+, Upper Tongue (10090101)+, Lower Tongue (10090102)+, Middle Fork Powder (10090201)+, Upper Powder (10090202)+, South Fork Powder (10090203)+, Salt (10090204)+, Crazy Woman (10090205)+, Clear (10090206)+, Middle Powder (10090207)+, Little Powder (10090208)+, Lower Powder (10090209)+, Mizpah (10090210)+, Lower Yellowstone-Sunday (10100001)+, Big Porcupine (10100002)+, Rosebud (10100003)+, Lower Yellowstone (10100004)+, O'fallon (10100005)+, Upper Little Missouri (10110201)+, Boxelder (10110202)+, Antelope (10120101)+, Dry Fork Cheyenne (10120102)+, Upper Cheyenne (10120103)+, Lance (10120104)+, Lightning (10120105)+, Angostura Reservoir (10120106)+, Beaver (10120107)+, Upper Belle Fourche (10120201)+, Lower Belle Fourche (10120202)+, Redwater (10120203)+, North Fork Grand (10130301)+*, Upper White (10140201)+, Sweetwater (10180006)+, Middle North Platte-Casper (10180007)+, Glendo Reservoir (10180008)+, Middle North Platte-Scotts Bluff (10180009)+, Lower Laramie (10180011)+, Horse (10180012)+, Pumpkin (10180013)+, Upper South Platte (10190002)+, Middle South Platte-Cherry Creek (10190003)+, Clear (10190004)+, St. Vrain (10190005)+, Big Thompson (10190006)+, Cache La Poudre (10190007)+, Lone Tree-Owl (10190008)+, Crow (10190009)+, Kiowa (10190010)+, Bijou (10190011)+, Middle South Platte-Sterling (10190012)+, Beaver (10190013)+, Upper Lodgepole (10190015)+, Lower Lodgepole (10190016)+, Lower South Platte (10190018)+, Arikaree (10250001)+, South Fork Republican (10250003)+, Upper Republican (10250004)+, Frenchman (10250005)+, Red Willow (10250007)+, Medicine (10250008)+, Harlan County Reservoir (10250009)+, West Fork Big Blue (10270203)+*
11 Upper Arkansas (11020002)+, Fountain (11020003)+, Chico (11020004)+, Upper Arkansas-Lake Meredith (11020005)+, Huerfano (11020006)+, Apishapa (11020007)+, Horse (11020008)+, Upper Arkansas-John Martin (11020009)+, Purgatoire (11020010)+, Big Sandy (11020011)+, Rush (11020012)+, Two Butte (11020013)+, Cimarron headwaters (11040001)+, Upper Cimarron (11040002)+, Lower Cimarron-Eagle Chief (11050001)+, Lower Cimarron-Skeleton (11050002)+*, Canadian headwaters (11080001)+, Cimarron (11080002)+, Upper Canadian (11080003)+, Mora (11080004)+, Ute (11080007)+, Revuelto (11080008)+, Middle Canadian-Trujillo (11090101)+, Punta De Agua (11090102)+, Rita Blanca (11090103)+, Carrizo (11090104)+, Lake Meredith (11090105)+, Middle Canadian-Spring (11090106)+, Lower Canadian-Deer (11090201)+, Upper Beaver (11100101)+, Coldwater (11100103)+, Palo Duro (11100104)+, Upper Wolf (11100202)+, Lower Wolf (11100203)+, Tierra Blanca (11120101)+, Palo Duro (11120102)+, Lower Prairie Dog Town Fork Red (11120105)+, Upper Salt Fork Red (11120201)+, Lower Salt Fork Red (11120202)+, Upper North Fork Red (11120301)+, Middle North Fork Red (11120302)+, Elm Fork Red (11120304)+, Groesbeck-Sandy (11130101)+, Blue-China (11130102)+, North Pease (11130103)+, Middle Pease (11130104)+, Pease (11130105)+, Farmers-Mud (11130201)+, West Cache (11130203)+*, North Wichita (11130204)+, South Wichita (11130205)+, Wichita (11130206)+, Little Wichita (11130209)+, Washita headwaters (11130301)+
12 Yellow House Draw (12050001)+, Blackwater Draw (12050002)+, North Fork Double Mountain Fork (12050003)+, Double Moutain Fork Brazos (12050004)+, Running Water Draw (12050005)+, Middle Brazos-Millers (12060101)+, Upper Clear Fork Brazos (12060102)+, Paint (12060103)+, Lost Draw (12080001)+, Colorado headwaters (12080002)+, Monument-Seminole Draws (12080003)+, Mustang Draw (12080004)+, Johnson Draw (12080005)+, Sulphur Springs Draw (12080006)+, Beals (12080007)+, South Concho (12090102)+, Middle Concho (12090103)+, North Concho (12090104)+, San Saba (12090109)+, North Llano (12090202)+
13 Elephant Butte Reservoir (13020211)+, Caballo (13030101)+, Cibolo-Red Light (13040201)+, Upper Devils (13040301)+, Tularosa Valley (13050003)+, Salt Basin (13050004)+, Pecos headwaters (13060001)+, Pintada Arroyo (13060002)+, Upper Pecos (13060003)+, Taiban (13060004)+, Upper Pecos-Long Arroyo (13060007)+, Lower Pecos-Red Bluff Reservoir (13070001)+, Delaware (13070002)+, Toyah (13070003)+, Salt Draw (13070004)+, Barrilla Draw (13070005)+, Landreth-Monument Draws (13070007)+, Lower Pecos (13070008)+
14 Upper Green (14040101)+, New Fork (14040102)+, Upper Green-Slate (14040103)+, Big Sandy (14040104)+, Bitter (14040105)+, Blacks Fork (14040107)+, Great Divide closed basin (14040200)+
15 Rillito (15050302)+*
+ Natural heritage record(s) exist for this watershed
* Extirpated/possibly extirpated
Ecology & Life History
Basic Description: A medium-sized, short-tailed, ground squirrel.
General Description: Largest of all CYNOMYS species; 700-1500 g; 28-33 cm from nose tip to rear end (Burt and Grossenheider 1976, Hoogland and Foltz 1982); limbs, tail (7-10 cm), and ears are relatively small, with body and tail pelage generally dark cinnamon on the back and upper sides but buff colored on underside (Burt and Grossenheider 1976, Anderson 1977, Hall 1981); distal third of tail is black or dark brown (Hall 1981). Molt twice per year, prior to summer and prior to winter. Skull is about 60 cm long, with 22 teeth (Burt and Grossenheider 1976).
Reproduction Comments: Breeding system is harem-polygynous, with most females copulating with one male and males with several females (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Females achieve estrous as early as the second week in March in Montana (Knowles 1987), March 1 in Colorado (Koford 1958), and the third week in January in Oklahoma (Anthony and Foreman 1951 in Koford 1958). Females are in estrous for several hours of only one day per year (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Gestation averages 35 days (Hoogland 1985, Knowles 1987). Though almost all adult females achieve estrous and many become pregnant, juvenile mortality is high with only one half of copulating females weaning a litter (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Minimum breeding age usually is two years for both sexes (Hoogland 1985, Knowles 1987). In Montana, most yearlings do not breed, but incidence of breeding among yearlings may reflect food abundance rather than age.

Litter size typically averages about 4 (Knowles 1987) (3 in yearlings, 5 in older females) (Koford 1958). Vegetation condition does not necessarily affect litter size, with adults producing an average litter size of 4.3 on "fair" rangeland and 5.7 on "severely depleted" rangeland (Koford 1958), but relatively large and small littes may follow high and low rainfall, respectively. Individual females produce one litter per year.

Pups stay underground until weaned (Hoogland 1985). Pups appear above ground in about 5-8 weeks (mid-May to early June in Montana). In the field, Hoogland (1985) found that the pups are weaned (and first emerge from burrows) at about 43 days. In the laboratory, weaning occurs at about 60 days (Johnson 1927). Due to forage availability and stress associated with crowding, the number of weaned juveniles increases as the number of adults and yearlings decreases, and vice-versa (Hoogland et al. 1987).

Ecology Comments: Social Organization

The basic prairie dog family group (the coterie) comprises one adult male (at least 2 years old), three or four adult females, and several yearlings or juveniles (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Large coteries with two or more males occasionally occur. Females remain in their coterie for life, whereas males usually leave within 12-14 months after weaning. The coterie system deteriorates in spring during gestation and lactation (King 1959). An organizational level higher than the coterie is the ward (King 1959), a town subdivision described according to topographic features.

Population Size Variations

Nonexpanding colonies fluctuate significantly between years under normal conditions (King 1959, Koford 1958, O'Meilia et al. 1982, Powell, unpubl. mans.). Spring counts revealed 252 prairie dogs in one year and 92 four years later (Hoogland et al. 1988). Over a 10-year period, the number of weaned juveniles ranged from 4 to 133. Expanding colonies can grow enormously in a few years, increasing population levels 30 to 295% (Hansen and Gold 1977, Garrett and Franklin 1988, Reading et al. 1989).

Human control efforts and plague cause substantial fluctuations in population size (see later sections for detailed discussions). In areas where immigration of new individuals is successful, genetic variability within a population is not decreased by large population reductions (Daley 1992).

Rates of Mortality

Under normal conditions, without catastrophic factors operating (e.g., plague or severe predation), rates of mortality vary substantially from year to year, both within and between cohorts (King 1959, Koford 1958, Hoogland et al. 1987). First year survival averaged 50-56% for males and females but ranged from 32-79% over a 5-year period (Hoogland et al. 1987). Mortality levels drop greatly after the first year, with males typically living to 3-4 years and females to 4-5 years. King (1955, in Koford 1958) observed 44% mortality in one population, with 36% mortality in the juvenile cohort followed by 22% mortality in the same cohort the following year.

Sources of Mortality

Common sources of mortality: The most common source of mortality currently impacting prairie dogs is unknown. Starvation associated with drought and severe winters and interactions between old age and other mortality factors contribute to mortality (Koford 1958); these probably are very important. In terms of population regulation, sylvatic plague is extremely important where it occurs (see next paragraph).

Disease as a mortality factor: Sylvatic (bubonic) plague is an exotic disease that can kill more than 99% of prairie dogs in a colony (Cully 1989). The plague bacteria YERSINIA PESTIS is transmitted animal-to-animal by infected fleas or contact with infected blood or tissue. The significance of plague in range-wide prairie dog mortality is unclear, though experts agree that where plague occurs it is extremely important in population dynamics (Cully 1992, Brown 1992). Plague may be introduced into a colony by other species or by dispersing prairie dogs, which bring plague-ridden fleas into a colony. Prairie dogs with plague in their bloodstream are very unlikely to introduce plague because the infected animals die quickly (Cully 1992).

Predation as a mortality factor: Historically, the major predators on prairie dogs were primarily the black-footed ferret and the badger (Bailey 1905 in Koford 1958, Koford 1958, Stromberg et al. 1983, Cully 1989). Raptors, snakes, coyotes, foxes, and bobcats all prey upon prairie dogs, but usually at low rates (Koford 1958; Cully 1989; Powell, unpubl. mans.).

Colony Expansion

Colonies expand under force of crowding associated with high survival rates and lack of forage (Koford 1958, Garrett et al. 1982). Off-colony attributes facilitating expansion include high forage availability, forage quality, and deep soils.

Dispersal and New Colonies

Inter-colony dispersal typically occurs from colonies that have reached carrying capacity, though emigration from young expanding colonies does occur (Garrett et al. 1982, Garrett and Franklin 1988). Dispersal occurs in the spring amongst healthy yearling males and adult females, which disperse an average 2.4 km (Garrett and Franklin 1988). In Nebraska, Steuter (1992) found that prairie dogs attempting to establish a new colony were often killed by badgers.

Little is known of the process of new colony initiation. In mixed prairie, prairie dogs may locate and attempt to colonize spots of disturbed land amidst dense grassland (Steuter 1992).

Colony Attributes: Size, Burrow Density, Population Size

Average colony size is typically 20-60 ha, though colonies of less than 10 ha to complexes of several hundred hectares are not uncommon (Bishop and Culbertson 1976, Cheatheam 1977, Clark et al. 1982, Knowles 1986). One C. LEUCURUS colony in Utah covered 958 ha (Clark et al. 1982). Merriam (1902) reported a Texas black-tailed prairie dog colony covering 25,000 square miles. Average burrow density varies widely, from 9/ha to at least 250/ha (Bishop and Culbertson 1976, Clark et al. 1982, Reading et al. 1989). Thirty to 100 burrows per hectare is common. Number of burrow entrances per hectare also varies substantially, with 50-123 a typical range (King 1959).

Density of prairie dogs fluctuates within and between years according to colony demographics, environmental conditions, forage availability, and soil and/or vegetation sites within towns (Koford 1958; Powell, in progress). Typical adult densities are about 12 per ha (Koford 1958; King 1959; Powell, in progress). After young are weaned (and can be counted aboveground), densities of all age classes totaled typically range from 5 to 30 prairie dogs per ha (Koford 1958, Hansen and Gold 1977, Knowles 1982 in Knowles 1986, O'Meilia et al. 1982). In three consecutive years, King (1959) noted densities in July on the same site to change from 22 to 14 to 41 prairie dogs per hectare.

Burrow Systems

In a study of 18 burrow systems Sheets et al. (1971) found the burrows ranging from 3 to 14 feet deep and 13 to 109 feet long, with tunnel diameter of 4-5 inches. Passageway plugs are used to inhibit predators, to compartmentalize and block off waste, or when the burrow system is under remodeling (Smith 1958 in Burns et al. 1989, Sheets et al. 1971, Martin et al. 1984, Burns et al. 1989).

Prairie dogs are, or were, a major ecological presence on the Great Plains, with a number of species intimately associated with their large towns. Now, they "may be as functionally extinct as the bison" (M. Gilpin, pers. comm. in Miller and Cully 2001).

Habitat Type: Terrestrial
Non-Migrant: Y
Locally Migrant: N
Long Distance Migrant: N
Terrestrial Habitat(s): Cropland/hedgerow, Desert, Grassland/herbaceous, Savanna
Special Habitat Factors: Burrowing in or using soil
Habitat Comments: Habitat consists of dry, flat or gently sloping, open grasslands with low, relatively sparse vegetation, including areas overgrazed by cattle. The species occurs in open vacant lots at town edges in some areas. Young are born in underground burrows.

Habitat includes all major grassland types--short (Bonham and Lerwick 1976), mixed (Coppock et al. 1983), and tall (Osborn 1942); most abundant and an important community member in the Mixed Grass Prairie and Short Grass Plains associations (Carpenter 1940, in Osborn 1942). Tallgrass prairie habitat is mainly areas where wild or domestic ungulates or other disturbance has reduced the stature of the tallgrass; prairie dogs maintain the vegetation in a low stature (Osborn 1942, Koford 1958, Hubbard 1992).

Fine to medium textured soils are preferred (Merriam 1902, Thorp 1949, Koford 1958), presumably because burrows and other structures tend to retain their shape and strength better than in coarse, loose soils. However, sandy soils often support larger, coarser graminoids with lower forage quality; prairie dogs may avoid these forages and thus associated sandy areas (Wedin 1992). Colonies commonly are found on silty clay loams, sandy clay loams, and loams (Thorp 1949, Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Klatt and Hein 1978, Agnew et al. 1986). Encroachment into sands (e.g., loamy fine sand) occurs if the habitat is needed for colony expansion (Osborn 1942).

Shallow slopes of less than 10% are preferred (Koford 1958, Hillman et al. 1979, Dalsted et al. 1981), presumably in part because such areas drain well and are only slightly prone to flooding.

By colonizing areas with low vegetative stature, prairie dogs often select areas with past human (as well as animal) disturbance. In North Dakota and Montana, colonies tended to be associated with areas heavily used by cattle, such as water tanks and long-term supplemental feeding sites (Licht and Sanchez 1993).

See Clippinger (1989) for a habitat suitability index model.

Adult Food Habits: Herbivore
Immature Food Habits: Herbivore
Food Comments: Prairie dogs prefer graminoids, focusing their herbivory on leaf bases (Koford 1958, Hansen and Gold 1977, Uresk 1984, Krueger 1986). The proportion of other forage types in the diet varies with season, location on town, and vegetative composition (Koford 1958, Hansen and Gold 1977, Uresk 1984, Krueger 1986, Summers and Linder 1978, Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Fagerstone et al. 1981).

A 950-g prairie dog consumes roughly 2.2 pounds of dry laboratory feed per month, or 26.4 pounds per year (Hansen and Cavender 1973 in Hansen and Gold 1977). In terms of forage consumption, Merriam (1902) and Koford (1958) estimated the number of prairie dogs equivalent to one animal unit (A.U.) to be 256 and 335, respectively. If 300 prairie dogs equal one animal unit in forage consumed, and one A.U. consumes about 30 pounds of forage per day (900 pounds per month), then a prairie dog on a natural diet would consume about 3 pounds per month.

Prairie dogs apparently do not require free water (Merriam 1902, Bintz 1984). Water is obtained from green grass and forb shoots (green grasses contain about 68-77% water) (Bintz 1984), and, in winter, from succulents such as OPUNTIA spp., which are about 80% water (Summers and Linder 1978, Fagerstone et al. 1981).

Adult Phenology: Diurnal, Hibernates/aestivates
Immature Phenology: Diurnal, Hibernates/aestivates
Phenology Comments: May reduce activity in winter, but torpor was not observed in any season in a field study in Colorado (Bakko et al. 1989). In summer, active during day, but rests in burrows during the hottest part of day and at night. In summer spends about 1/3-1/2 of day feeding.
Length: 42 centimeters
Weight: 1360 grams
Economic Attributes Not yet assessed
Management Summary
Species Impacts: Effects on Plant Communities and Vegetation

Prairie dogs regulate communities by changing plant and animal species composition, diversity, and production (Koford 1958, Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Agnew et al. 1986, Coppock et al. 1983, Uresk 1984, Sharps and Uresk 1990, Whicker and Detling 1988a, Reading et al. 1989).

Plant species composition is generally altered through replacement or reduction in the dominance value of mid to tall species, thereby allowing the encroachment and/or expansion of short species and/or short morphs of species (Osborn 1942, Koford 1958, Detling and Painter 1983, Archer et al. 1984, Archer et al. 1987).

Plant community composition is also affected by changes in relative percentages in annuals versus perennials (Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Archer et al. 1987). In South Dakota mixed prairie, perennial grasses were replaced primarily by annual forbs (Archer et al. 1987). In New Mexico, diversity of both perennials and annuals increased under prairie dog herbivory (Stinnett 1981); these data should be viewed with caution because only one colony was sampled and not all colony plant species were accounted for.

Prairie dog effects on plant diversity depend on the type of plant-soil community and colony age (Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Stinnett 1981, Coppock et al. 1983, Krueger 1986). Sites that are strongly dominated by one species are likely to increase in diversity once prairie dogs move in, while diverse sites are likely to remain at their level of diversity prior to disturbance or lose diversity (Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Agnew et al. 1986). Elevated diversity is often found on young colonies and on young portions of colonies (Coppock et al. 1983, Krueger 1986). Thus, diversity may increase to a threshold associated with a given intensity and duration of prairie dog activity, but decrease beyond that threshold as one or two species dominate (Coppock et al. 1983, Archer et al. 1984, Krueger 1986, Steuter 1992). Other factors that affect diversity include availability of plant species propagules, herbivory by other wild and domestic animals, and prairie dog demographics. As for demographics, towns with low prairie dog densities and/or a population that is maintained well below carrying capacity are least likely to push a plant community into a low state of diversity.

End-of-season standing crop is primarily affected by the severity of herbivory, the response of plant species, and colony age (Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Coppock et al. 1983,b, Krueger 1986). Under heavy grazing by prairie dogs and light grazing by ungulates, annual net aboveground primary production (ANPP) does not appear to differ between on- and off-colony areas (Whicker and Detling 1988). Thus, prairie dogs may actually elevate ANPP by stimulating shoot production.

As a result of intensive above-ground vegetation removal by prairie dogs, vegetative and litter cover are lower in on- than off-colony areas, whereas amount of bare ground is higher on a colony (Knowles et al. 1982, Coppock et al. 1983, Archer and Detling 1986, Archer et al. 1987). These changes result in significant microsite-level impacts on colonies, including elevated soil temperature (Archer and Detling 1986), altered nutrient cycling (Whicker and Detling 1988), and possibly altered erosion and runoff patterns. By removing above-ground growth and elevating surface temperatures (Archer and Detling 1986), prairie dogs may facilitate green-up of cool season forages earlier in spring and later in fall than usual. Higher soil temperatures (Archer and Detling 1986) may also result in longer growing season for warm season plants.

Interactions with Ungulates

In relation to ungulates, the most important change effected by prairie dogs across their range is probably reduction in ungulate forage availability. However, nutrient density may be increased for large ungulates and they may prefer colonies until forage quantity becomes limiting (Steuter 1992). See Hansen and Gold (1977), O'Meilia et al. (1982), and Vanderhye, in Whicker and Detling (1985, unpubl. mans.) Bison, elk and pronghorn (ANTILOCAPRA AMERICANA) preferentially use prairie dog towns (Coppock et al. 1983, Wydeven and Dahlgren 1985, Krueger 1986), but they may experience little or no weight gain when doing so (Hansen and Gold 1977; O'Meilia et al. 1982). Increased diversity and abundance of certain forage types (forbs for pronghorn) and elevated forage quality (bison, elk, pronghorn) may attract the ungulates (Koford 1958, Coppock et al. 1983, Krueger 1986).

Effects on Mammals, Birds, and Other Wildlife

Colonies generally show increased biomass and unaffected or reduced diversity of small mammals (Hansen and Gold 1977, Clark et al. 1982, O'Meilia et al. 1982, Sharps and Uresk 1990). Density and biomass of other rodents is greater on than off colony, as a result of higher forage quality, greater forb seed availability, and more cover (burrows) on-colony. Increases are usually accounted for by a small number of species, including the northern grasshopper mouse (ONYCHOMYS LEUCOGASTER) and deer mouse (PEROMYSCUS MANICULATUS) (O'Meilia et al. 1982, Agnew et al. 1986). Vole biomass is greater off colony, where graminoid cover (preferred vole habitat) is usually greater (Agnew et al. 1986). Data conflict for some species, such as the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (SPERMOPHILUS TRIDECEMLINEATUS), of which biomass was lower on-colony (Agnew et al. 1986) in mixed prairie and off-colony in shortgrass (O'Meilia et al. 1982). Plant diversity may have impacted the ground squirrel, as off-colony diversity was higher on mixed prairie and lower on shortgrass. Cottontail (SYLVILAGUS spp.) density is higher on-colony when prairie dog burrows are available (Dano 1952, in Koford 1958; Hansen and Gold 1977). Jackrabbits (LEPUS spp.) show no favoritism to colonies, possibly because of the lack of aboveground cover (Koford 1958). Swift foxes (VULPES VELOX) show a degree of dependence on prairie dogs (Uresk and Sharps 1986, in Sharps and Uresk 1990).

Birds commonly associated with colonies include the burrowing owl (SPEOTYTO CUNICULARIA), mountain plover (CHARADRIUS MONTANUS), horned lark (EREMOPHILA ALPESTRIS), lark bunting (CALAMOSPIZA MELANOCORYS), western meadowlark (STURNELLA NEGLECTA), mourning dove (ZENAIDA MACROURA), killdeer (CHARADRIUS VOCIFERUS), barn swallow (HIRUNDO RUSTICA), and various blackbirds (Koford 1958, Clark et al. 1982, Agnew et al. 1986, Sharps and Uresk 1990, Apa et al. 1991). The mountain plover, a species of high conservation concern, selects prairie dog colonies for the proper nesting conditions of low vegetation and relatively high bare ground coverage (Knowles et al. 1982). Plovers preferentially use prairie dog towns for breeding, feeding, and rearing young. Knowles et al. (1982) speculated that prairie dog extermination has largely contributed to plover decline. Prairie dog burrows are important roosting and nesting sites for burrowing owls (Koford 1958, Cheatheam 1977, Tyler 1983). Prairie dogs are not an important food source for burrowing owls, which rely heavily on arthropods (Tyler 1983). In mixed prairie, biomass and diversity of birds was greater on-colony than off (Agnew et al. 1986, Reading et al. 1989). Elevated abundance of birds on-colony may be a result of the increase in prolific seed producing plants and greater visibility with easier insect and seed detection (Agnew et al. 1986).

Insect biomass is typically much lower on- than off-colony as a result of elevated bird and small mammal (e.g., grasshopper mouse) activity (O'Meilia et al. 1982). With few exceptions insects account for a very small portion of prairie dog diet (Koford 1958). Harvester ant (POGONOMYRMEX OCCIDENTALIS) activity appears to be facilitated by prairie dog activity (Koford 1958, O'Meilia et al. 1982), presumably because ants like the worked soil of prairie dog mounds. Conversely, prairie dogs may prefer the disturbed soil around ant mounds for burrowing (Koford 1958).

Based on a review of recent island biogeography concepts, Reading et al. (1989) implied that prairie dog colony complexes are critical to regional grassland biodiversity. Further, they suggested that colony complexes be managed as prairie dog ecosystems composed of "metapopulations" of prairie dogs and associated fauna.

Effects on Soils

Prairie dogs may extensively alter colony soils by mixing upper and lower layers throughout almost a whole colony (Thorp 1949). In the process 30-40 tons of subsoil material may be brought to the surface, while over time soil texture may be changed (Thorp 1949). Soil mixing per burrow system may amount to 200-225 kg of soil (Whicker and Detling 1988). Mixing and prairie dog activities affect nutrients, as soil P and N under burrows are typically higher and lower, respectively, than mound-edge soils (Carlson and White 1987). Soil P accumulation is apparently a result of breakdown of prairie dog waste and bones. Nitrogen reduction may be caused by reduction in plant material growing in the mound. While total N may be decreased, the rate of N turnover is more important in terms of site productivity (Wedin 1992). The turnover rate increases with herbivory and disturbance. Carlson and White (1987) investigated colony soils on the edges of mounds, but not in intermound areas.

See also Oldemeyer et al. (1993) for information on effects on soils.

Restoration Potential: A prairie dog colony is generally readily restored or reinvigorated following catastrophe (see ecology and management sections). Pet prairie dogs have flourished in back yards since at least the late 1800s (Otero 1987). Given forage and protection from threats, they usually prosper and rebound.
Preserve Selection & Design Considerations: As with other squirrels, prairie dogs are an especially resilient mammal in relationships with man. They prosper adjacent to railroads (Mearns 1907, Merriam 1902), highways, auto roads, and businesses where little or no buffer zone occurs. A colony in a small area can prosper for years without human interference as long as a forage base is available and except when one of the above threats or severe predation intercedes (R. Wallace, pers. obs., Lubbock, Texas). Thus, protection to the outer edge of a colony or colony complex will usually be sufficient. However, to ensure protection, the inclusion of a buffer zone is recommended. The size of the buffer zone will depend upon local conditions; for example, colonies that occur in urban areas should have a relatively larger buffer zone than colonies that occur in remote areas unpopulated by humans. Furthermore, if stewardship calls for colony expansion, then a land area substantially greater than the existing colony size should be managed accordingly. Expansion areas must have the proper habitat requirements as well (see other sections).
Management Requirements: Although prairie dogs are common, management is important for several reasons: 1) prairie dogs are still often viewed with disdain by humans managing for other purposes, and are thus constantly threatened, 2) the loss of one colony in an area may seem insignificant, but such losses, if extensive enough, amount to the loss of a significant genetic resource, and 3) prairie dogs are an important component of North American grasslands by virtue of their interactions with soils, flora, and fauna. Specifically, colonies and colony complexes can enhance the biodiversity of an area larger than the colony itself, depending upon the size of the grassland encompassing the colony(ies) (for example, see Reading et al. 1989).

Protection as a Management Tool

Because prairie dogs are resilient, self-managing creatures, protective management means assuring the exclusion of plague, control, and habitat loss, and monitoring prairie dog and associated floral/faunal trends (see other sections).

Reintroduction Plan

Plan Goal: Establishment of a long-term self-sustaining prairie dog colony functioning as a natural patch in grassland or savannah.

Plan Procedures - Site Characteristics:

1) Slope - < 10% (Koford 1958, Dalsted et al. 1981, Hillman et al. 1979).

2) Soil - No sands, sandy loam to heavier okay (Thorp 1949, Koford 1958, Bishop and Culbertson 1976).

3) Vegetation - Short to mixed grass (Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Coppock et al. 1983, Archer et al. 1987, Stinnett 1981).

4) Expansion area - Habitat allowed for expansion should primarily be of the ideal habitat. Colony encroachment into areas with an important woody component is possible if management is committed to facilitating the encroachment by initially and repeatedly top-removing resprouting woodies as needed (Osborn 1942, Player and Urness 1982, Weltzin 1990).

5) Dispersal area, New colony initiation - If new colony growth is allowed, areas within 3 km (Garrett and Franklin 1988) of the original colony should include ideal habitat. Both unvegetated travel lanes (Knowles 1986) and vegetated, pathless areas (Garrett and Franklin 1988) should be provided for travel to other areas of ideal habitat. Unvegetated travel lanes may include dirt roads, cow paths, ephemeral watercourses, and should radiate from a colony in at least four main directions. Roads and trails may lead dispersing animals to disturbed sites which might be suitable for colonization (Knowles 1986). As off colony vegetation density decreases and bare ground increases, the frequency and cover of unvegetated travel lanes can decrease as well. Vegetated, pathless areas may be important in providing cover for dispersing prairie dogs (Garrett and Franklin 1988).

Initial Establishment: Extant vegetation should be reduced to about 5-15 cm above ground level (Player and Urness 1982). This will leave forage available while allowing visibility. Vegetation should be artificially maintained at this height until the prairie dogs are abundant enough to regulate the height. A buffer zone around the prairie dogs of vegetation maintained low is necessary to inhibit predator concealment.

Animal Characteristics:

1) Age - Young adults at 2 years of age should be used as they can breed and might breed in the spring of the introduction (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). If 1-year-old animals must be used, it is preferable that they be males, which tend to disperse at age 1 anyway (Garrett and Franklin 1988).

2) Male:female, coterie size - Release a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio, based on typical coterie make-up (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). If male influence is higher, there may be too much fighting and stress.

3) Animal density - A proper release density is 12 animals per hectare, which is close to the average of adult and juvenile dogs in natural populations (Koford 1958; King 1959; Powell, unpubl. mans.). Given a male:female ratio of 1:3, this density provides 3 coteries per hectare. For reference, in two successful reintroductions the density of animals initially released was less than (Hansen and Gold 1977) and equal to (O'Meilia et al. 1982) 12/ha.

4) Animal source - Prairie dogs should be obtained from within the same climatic/vegetation region and from the closest possible colony (Cully 1992). This provides the best chance of obtaining a match between the habitat and the prairie dogs and reduces the odds of introducing diseases (Cully 1992). Cully (1992) recommended that the seed colony be checked for plague and overall health and seed colonies with high rates of disease be avoided. He also recommended that all individuals be quarantined for control of disease.

Release Schedule:

1) Time of year - Animals should be transplanted in spring when the majority of cool season species are resprouting in response to top removal but dense grass growth has not yet accumulated (Brown et al. 1974). Successful spring reintroductions were documented by Hansen and Gold (1977) and O'Meilia et al. (1982). High quality forage with moisture should be available and temperatures should not be stressful. Artificial or livestock-induced maintenance of low vegetation stature may be required if vegetation growth rate is high following resprouting. If regrowth rate is very rapid, consider introduction at time of year when growth rate may be slower (e.g., in response to reduced soil moisture). (Note: At this writing one case in which establishment under slightly different conditions from those recommended here is known. Utah prairie dogs were successfully established in early summer (late June) on a 25-31 cm rainfall site at 2200 m elevation (Player and Urness 1982).)

2) Number of animals released - Based on data on Utah prairie dogs, a large number of animals (about 50) released at one time is apparently not a problem (Player and Urness 1982). Whether an even larger number of animals can be released simultaneously on one site and successfully establish is unclear; more information is needed. As many as 184 to 200 animals have been released on adjacent sites (as many as 50/ha) in the same spring (O'Meilia et al. 1982) and summer (Player and Urness 1982). Animals are commonly released over consecutive years, with the largest number released during the first year (Hansen and Gold 1977, O'Meilia et al. 1982).

Number of Burrow Entrances: Given that only one burrow entrance is usually found in one burrow system (Stromberg 1978), at least three potential burrow entrances per coterie should be provided to ensure that the animals find a burrow entrance they like. Three burrows per coterie and three coteries per hectare yield nine potential burrow entrances per hectare. However, this is a very low figure for natural populations, which commonly have about 30-100 burrows/ha. Naturally dispersing prairie dogs obviously begin without mounds, but population levels are very low (probably about 2-5 animals). In reintroduction, dozens of animals may be released within the same season, if not simultaneously (O'Meilia et al. 1982, Player and Urness 1982). Thus, an excess of burrow mound entrances would be ideal, such as 30-40/ha. This decision will reside with a manager based on needs and limitations at the time.

Structure of Burrows: Burrows should be initiated by digging 10- 15-cm-wide holes about one meter deep (Sheets et al. 1971, Player and Urness 1982). Holes should be at steep angles, such as 10-40 degrees (Brown et al. 1974, Player and Urness 1982). A power auger is ideal for digging (Player and Urness 1982). Soil from holes need not be mounded around the hole perimeter, but an auger would accomplish this on its own to some degree. Cover, in the form of wooden boxes with a small entrance (about 15 x 15 cm), or other predator- and weather-proof structure, should be provided for at least some of the prairie dogs (about 25-50%) until the animals rely strictly on their burrows (Carpenter and Martin 1969, Player and Urness 1982, Siminski 1992). Cover boxes should be placed over burrow holes (Carpenter and Martin 1969, Player and Urness 1982).

Site Preparation: Ideally a site should be assessed by disturbing it one year in advance and monitoring floral and faunal response (Player and Urness 1982). Vegetation should be repeatedly top- clipped and the soil disturbed somewhat, such as several patches per hectare, with each patch exceeding burrow mound diameter (> 1 m). Soil disturbance might encourage species that are initially unwanted in an establishing prairie dog colony, such as predators. Monitoring should search for such species and managers must be willing to remove them as necessary.

If a site is disturbed a year in advance, a year-long pre- introduction study on colony vegetation should be conducted to help clarify the feasibility of an introduction. Feasibility would be determined by establishing whether forage quality and quantity are adequate and if other objectives (e.g., elevated diversity) might be met. Vegetation should be monitored by season for changes in production, diversity, and composition. Monitoring on adjacent control (undisturbed) sites should proceed as well.

Introductions often work when a site is disturbed immediately prior to prairie dog release (Carpenter and Martin 1969), but prior assessment of site response to disturbance is highly recommended, especially for major, costly reintroduction attempts aimed at establishing a large, fully functional colony. (Note: Reports emphasizing the ease of establishment of prairie dogs [Otero 1987, Carpenter and Martin 1987] often stem from cases where the animals were highly managed, in that the animals were walled in, watched every day, and daily provided with food.)

Initial Release: Consider enclosing some prairie dogs in cages over artificial holes to discourage prairie dog wandering and predation (Player and Urness 1982). Trap predators until all prairie dogs are living in burrows.

Initial Monitoring and Care: To help ensure animal safety and success of introduction, monitor prairie dog numbers and activity (Player and Urness 1982) until the animals appear unreliant on cover boxes. Then shift to monitoring about every three days. The length of the intensive monitoring period will depend upon site-specific conditions and feasibility. Where feasible and necessary, remove all predators until the year when a majority of the adults have contributed to a cohort of weanlings. However, this may not be necessary if the supply of introduced prairie dogs is very large. Consider forage supplements (e.g., high protein pellets) at release and during stressful periods (dry spells, extreme cold), until weaning success is high. If dry feed is supplied, consider providing open water or moist feed as well. In areas of grassland with no cacti or woody component, consider providing succulent or green material outside of the growing season.

Laws Affecting Introduction: Managers should be aware of laws regarding import, transport, introduction, and control of rodents. Laws may apply regarding possible disease transmission. Many states (e.g., Texas, New Mexico, South Dakota) have laws requiring prairie dog control when they are a pest. Such laws may have statements affecting introduction attempts.

Responsible Handling of Prairie Dogs: Managers should be apprised of humane transport and housing techniques (more information is needed), as well as steps necessary for protection from disease transmission from animal to humans. Seed colonies should be dusted to insecticidally control any extant fleas prior to handling prairie dogs.

Trapping for Reintroduction Garrett and Franklin (1988) used National double-door live traps for adults and yearlings and National single-door traps for juveniles. They baited traps with oats and located them at burrow entrances.

Pressurized water with suds (Elias et al. 1974, Lewis et al. 1979) and water alone (Carpenter and Martin 1969) can be applied to burrows. In the former case (Elias et al. 1974), the foaming suds fill the burrows, reducing the amount of water needed. An average capture rate of 10 prairie dogs per hour has been recorded. Without suds, 29 prairie dogs were taken in two hours.

Control as a Management Tool

In cases where colony expansion or initiation is inappropriate, numerous effective tried-and-true control measures exist. Non-lethal methods include establishment of visual barriers to control direction and rate of expansion (Franklin and Garrett 1989), chemosterilants in artificially provided forages to reduce levels of fertilization and natality (Garrett and Franklin 1983), and deferment of ungulate grazing to allow vegetative growth to exceed the acceptable limits of prairie dogs (Snell and Hlavachick 1982, in Cable and Timm 1987). On high-condition mixed prairie, fire may also discourage colony expansion (Klukas 1987). When off-colony areas are burned, attracting ungulates away from colonies (Coppock and Detling 1986), prairie dogs may have difficulty suppressing on-colony vegetation until ungulates return (Klukas 1987).

Lethal control measures include strychnine and zinc phosphide laced grain baits and phosphine and other gases, all of which are highly effective inducers of mortality in prairie dogs and certain other granivores as well (Deisch et al. 1990). Animal Damage Control recommends poison application as follows (ADC, no date). Toxic bait, the most widely used control agent, should be applied when vegetation is not green, in order to avoid foraging competition. Pre-bait with 1 teaspoon of untreated oats at each burrow to get the prairie dogs on the grain. Once most of the grain is consumed, which may take a few days, apply 1 teaspoon of baited grain per burrow. To ensure that non-target animals will not take poisoned grain, do not apply poisoned bait until the prairie dogs are readily consuming the pre-bait. Prairie dogs that survive the toxic grain can be gassed by inserting gas-releasing cartridges or tablets into burrows and plugging the burrows. (Note: Zinc-phosphide and some other toxins can be used only by individuals certified as pesticide applicators in their state.) The poisons can affect some non-target species. Within four days of application, strychnine baits reduced horned lark (EREMOPHILA ALPESTRIS) densities by 55-66% (Apa et al. 1991). However, when zinc-phosphide was used no effect was observed on horned larks. Zinc-phosphide is toxic to horned larks, but the birds are repelled by its taste and smell. The control of prairie dogs also caused a long-term depression of horned larks as the colony vegetation grew to a height and density disfavored by the birds.

Zinc-phosphide will cause mortality of deer mice (Deisch et al. 1990), while zinc-phosphide and strychnine will reduce ant and wolf spider numbers, respectively (Deisch et al. 1989). However, over the long term, control results in elevated numbers of wolf spiders and ground beetles. See Uresk et al. (1988) for further information on effects of toxins on wildlife.

Significantly, prairie dog control is so expensive that in many areas of prairie dog range the forage benefits derived by livestock are not enough to result in recovery of costs of control (Collins et al. 1984, Sharps 1988, Miller et al. 1990). On shortgrass range, Collins et al. (1984) found that forage increases following control amounted to only 51 kg/ha/year. If each year prairie dogs repopulated at least 30% of the area originally treated, total costs were not recovered because of the added cost of yearly maintenance control. Initial treatment costs range from $16-17/ha ($6.50-6.90/acre), with yearly maintenance costs of about 75% of initial control costs (Collins et al. 1984).

Where the federal government is paying for control, the associated cost to the taxpayer led Sharps (1987) to propose that control programs be abandoned in favor of sport shooting of prairie dogs as a way to boost local economies. In South Dakota in 1986, 46,000 hunter days were expended in shooting prairie dogs (Sharps 1987). Sport shooting is an inefficient control measure, but it does limit prairie dog expansion if regularly used (Reading et al. 1989). Most importantly, shooting does not present the risk offered by toxins to nontarget wildlife.

For further details on lethal control measures see Deisch et al. (1990), ADC control pamphlets (ADC, no date), and/or contact local animal control offices. ADC is with USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service).

Flea Control in Prairie Dog Colonies

In areas where prairie dogs are close to humans, colony fleas are killed with insecticidal dusts (e.g., pyroperm, carbaryl [sevin]) to prevent transmission to domestic dogs and cats (which carry plague to human homes). Flea control also should limit the chance of disease transmission through the prairie dog colony. Pyroperm does not seem to damage the prairie dogs, even if it touches the animals directly (Brown 1992).

Animal Damage Control (ADC) recommends that when controlling prairie dogs, fleas are controlled as well (ADC, no date). If fleas are not controlled prior to prairie dog control, the fleas may seek the next available living being (e.g., humans) once the prairie dogs are controlled.

Monitoring Requirements: On a range-wide basis prairie dogs are common and apparently exist in relatively stable numbers, but long-term monitoring may be appropriate for assessing population trends. Frequent monitoring may be needed in some circumstances. For example, if monitoring occurs only once per year plague-related declines might not be caught early enough. However, knowledge of plague activity in an area should give managers the necessary lead time to avert a plague disaster.

Monitoring is conducted on fine and coarse resolution. Fine scale or on-site monitoring includes 1) prairie dog counts, 2) mark-recapture, and 3) indices to population levels, including active burrow entrance estimates, active burrow mound estimates, and active burrow mound density estimates. To estimate the adult (plus yearling) population, counts should be made in late winter, prior to emergence of the young of the year. Total population estimates should be made in the spring after the young of the year have emerged but before extensive juvenile mortality occurs. In this way maximum population size is estimated, as well as reproductive success, litter size, male:female ratio, and adult:juvenile ratio. Visual counts entail observation of prairie dogs during peak activity (morning or evening). Results of visual count estimates of white-tailed prairie dogs often correlate well with results of mark-recapture estimates (Fagerstone and Biggins 1986, Menkens et al. 1990), indicating that visual counts may be used in place of the more tedious and time consuming mark-recapture technique. However, there are many sources of variability (location on colony, time of day, between year variation) that potentially weaken the accuracy of visual count estimates. For example, Powell (unpubl. mans.) found that extensive high cloud cover delayed emergence of prairie dogs. However, he found no differences in estimates conducted in morning versus evening. Regardless, great care should be taken in replicating conditions from count to count (Menkens et al. 1990). When care is taken, visual counts should be used for population size estimate rather than mark-recapture. Managers should develop a visual count scheme that is periodically checked against mark-recapture data. See Menkens et al. (1990) and Fagerstone and Biggins (1986) for details on establishing and conducting visual counts and mark-recapture estimates. See Severson and Plumb (1998) for a comparison of methods to estimate population density.

Burrow counts do not accurately reflect population size (Powell, unpubl. mans.) because prairie dogs open some burrows but do not use them, a few burrows may be utilized by one prairie dog, and one burrow may be utilized by several prairie dogs. Thus burrow-related indices should only be used as a crude index to population size and prairie dog activity. The most valuable piece of information from such indices is probably related to colony expansion, when long-term counts are made of new burrow mounds occurring on a colony perimeter.

Coarse-level monitoring entails aerial photography to detect colonies and assess colony size, number of burrows, burrow density, and, by viewing sequential images from year to year, colony expansion/contraction (Bishop and Culbertson 1976; Cheatheam 1977; Dalsted et al. 1981; Conley and Conley, no date; Powell, unpubl. mans.). Powell (unpubl. mans.) found that color aerial photos at a scale of 1:20,000, backed up by contact with local knowledgeable people, were adequate to detect prairie dog colonies larger than 2 ha. Additionally, prairie dog towns were easily identified near the end of the growing season in August, when a deep green color associated with greater canopy cover off-colony contrasted sharply with a weak green color produced by reduced canopy cover on-colony. Conversely, in November, when vegetation was dormant and brown, canopy cover differences did not show up as well. November photos were usable but at reduced accuracy. Using black-and-white photos at 1:7920, Cheatheam (1977) easily detected colonies, even in sparsely vegetated areas where colony/off-colony contrast was minimal. Rapid expansion of colonies at Wind Cave National Park required more rapid colony monitoring techniques than on-site inspection (Dalsted et al. 1981). Aerial photos using color, black- and-white, and color infrared (CIR) film were taken at 1:15,840. While color and black-and-white allowed detection and delineation of colonies, CIR was much more sensitive to vegetation differences, making accurate boundary determination much easier. However, CIR did not detect towns smaller than 0.5 ha. Cost of CIR ($3.70/ha) was only 60% of on-site assessment ($6.20/ha). Finally, using MSS Landsat images Conley and Conley (no date) found that colonies smaller than 50 ha could not be detected. (Note: Which of the above fine- or coarse-scale techniques should be employed will depend on site- specific needs as outlined by the manager.)

Land managers should keep abreast of control efforts in their regions to ensure that control does not lead to local/regional endangerment of prairie dogs.

Management Research Needs: The most important areas of need, not in order of significance, are 1) plague ecology (Cully 1992), 2) interactions between prairie dogs and ungulates on shortgrass and the more arid portions of the range, 3) impacts of prairie dogs on the ecosystem, 4) trends in total numbers, and 5) genetic interaction in colony complexes (see Reading et al. [1989] for information on metapopulations). Good work has been done in all these areas, but bodies of work large enough to develop highly supported generalizations do not exist. Other areas where work is needed are prairie dog/predator interactions (what are the most important predators, how important are they), long-term effects of prairie dogs on communities (flora, fauna, soils), and prairie dog subspecies status. Specific questions might compare soil characteristics in very old colonies, young colonies, and uncolonized areas, and ANPP on and off colony. Research is desperately needed on floral/faunal interactions in the less studied portions of the prairie dog's range, such as southern and northern range limits.
Biological Research Needs: Of primary concern is the long-term viability of colonies in relation to size and distance to nearby colonies. Additionally, research into prairie dog genetics is needed to determine if currently reduced populations and habitat fragmentation are causing damaging levels of inbreeding.
Population/Occurrence Delineation
Use Class: Not applicable
Minimum Criteria for an Occurrence: Evidence of historical presence, or current and likely recurring presence of a prairie dog town or town complex at a given location.
Separation Barriers: Major water barriers; greater than 300 meters wide, or narrower if evidence or professional judgement indicates little or no dispersal across.
Separation Distance for Unsuitable Habitat: 1 km
Separation Distance for Suitable Habitat: 5 km
Separation Justification: In spring, individual yearling males and adult females disperse an average 2.4 kilometers (Garrett and Franklin 1988); dispersal is generally less than 8 kilometers (Knowles 1985). Genetic data suggest that dispersal occurs on a regular basis among prairie dog colonies after initial colonization (colonies were 1.4-5.7 km apart) (Roach et al. 2001).

Natural drainages may function as dispersal corridors because colonies typically are located in swales and seasonally wet lowlands (Roach et al. 2001).

Date: 21Mar2005
Author: Cannings, S., and G. Hammerson
Population/Occurrence Viability
U.S. Invasive Species Impact Rank (I-Rank) Not yet assessed
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Edition Date: 02May2006
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Author: Reichel, J. D., G. Hammerson, and S. Cannings
Management Information Edition Date: 20Jan1993
Management Information Edition Author: WALLACE, ROBY
Management Information Acknowledgments: Rick Johnson (Director of Science and Stewardship, TNC, New Mexico Field Office, Santa Fe) worked extensively in providing guidance, compiling an excellent bibliography, recommending initial contacts, and reviewing the first draft.

The following people provided invaluable help through conversations and/or written material (positions and addresses not given here are cited elsewhere in this report): Geoff Babb, Ted Brown, Gerardo Ceballos-G., J. F. (Buck) Cully, Bill Franklin (biologist/behaviorist, Iowa State U., Ames, Iowa), Bruce Hayward (biologist, Western New Mexico University, Silver City, NM), John Hubbard, Pat Mehlhop, John Oldemeyer, Roger Peterson (biologist, Saint John's University, Santa Fe, NM), Robert Robel (biologist, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS), Peter Siminski, Al Steuter, Hop Turman, Bill van Pelt, and Jake Weltzin (biologist, Raedeke Assoc., Seattle, WA).

Additional help was generously granted by Susan Anderson (TNC, Latin American Field Office, Tucson, AZ), Carl Bock (biologist, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO), James Findley (biologist, Dept. Biol., University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM), Bill Gannon (Collections Manager, Div. Mammals, Birds, Cryovouchers, Dept. Biol., University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM), Dave Gori (Stewardship Ecologist, TNC, Tucson, AZ), Larry Hays (Natural Resources Specialist, Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, SD), Richard Klukas (biologist, National Park Service, Midwest Region Office, Omaha, NE), Guy McPherson (ecologist, Forest and Watershed Div., University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ), Norman Scott (biologist, USFWS, National Ecology Research Center, Dept. Biol., University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM), Marian Skupski (Ph.D. candidate, Dept. Biol., University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM), Tom Witham (biologist, Dept. Biol., Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ), and Rick Young (National Stewardship Ecologist, TNC, Tucson, AZ).

The following persons served as independent reviewers of this ESA: Geoff Babb, The Nature Conservancy, Arbuckle Ecosystem Manager, Lake Wales, FL; Jack (Buck) F. Cully, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Ecol. Serv. Field Office, 3530 Pan American Hwy. NE., Suite D, Albuquerque, NM 87107, (505) 883-7877; Bill Dunmire (formerly of The Nature Conservancy), Placitas, NM; John Hubbard, Endangered Species Biologist, New Mexico Game and Fish Dept., Santa Fe, NM, (505) 827-9925; Pat Mehlhop, Director, New Mexico Natural Heritage Program, Albuquerque, NM, (505) 277-1991; Al Steuter, The Nature Conservancy, Manager, Niobrara Valley Preserve, Niobrara, NE, (402) 722-4440; Dave Wedin, Dept. Ecol. Behav. Biol., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, (612) 625-5627.

Element Ecology & Life History Edition Date: 08Mar2006
Element Ecology & Life History Author(s): WALLACE, ROBY, REVISIONS BY S. CANNINGS

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Citation for data on website including State Distribution, Watershed, and Reptile Range maps:
NatureServe. 2019. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available (Accessed:

Citation for Bird Range Maps of North America:
Ridgely, R.S., T.F. Allnutt, T. Brooks, D.K. McNicol, D.W. Mehlman, B.E. Young, and J.R. Zook. 2003. Digital Distribution Maps of the Birds of the Western Hemisphere, version 1.0. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Acknowledgement Statement for Bird Range Maps of North America:
"Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Robert Ridgely, James Zook, The Nature Conservancy - Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International - CABS, World Wildlife Fund - US, and Environment Canada - WILDSPACE."

Citation for Mammal Range Maps of North America:
Patterson, B.D., G. Ceballos, W. Sechrest, M.F. Tognelli, T. Brooks, L. Luna, P. Ortega, I. Salazar, and B.E. Young. 2003. Digital Distribution Maps of the Mammals of the Western Hemisphere, version 1.0. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Acknowledgement Statement for Mammal Range Maps of North America:
"Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Bruce Patterson, Wes Sechrest, Marcelo Tognelli, Gerardo Ceballos, The Nature Conservancy-Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International-CABS, World Wildlife Fund-US, and Environment Canada-WILDSPACE."

Citation for Amphibian Range Maps of the Western Hemisphere:
IUCN, Conservation International, and NatureServe. 2004. Global Amphibian Assessment. IUCN, Conservation International, and NatureServe, Washington, DC and Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Acknowledgement Statement for Amphibian Range Maps of the Western Hemisphere:
"Data developed as part of the Global Amphibian Assessment and provided by IUCN-World Conservation Union, Conservation International and NatureServe."

NOTE: Full metadata for the Bird Range Maps of North America is available at:

Full metadata for the Mammal Range Maps of North America is available at:

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