Richard Ramskill.


National Geographic.

Vol. 193, No. 4 April 1998.

The Vanishing Prairie Dog.

Seen both as vermin and as victims, black-tailed prairie dogs scan for predators in the South Dakota Badlands. Habitat destruction, shooting, and poisoning, the method Federal agents in Arizona used to exterminate this pyramid of dogs in the early 1900s, have eliminated the rodents from about 98% of their range.

In the plains of Colorado, prairie dogs are hunted by riflemen in early mornings. Ken Holmes is one of thirty riflemen of the Varmit Militia. Ranchers are always complaining that they take the grass from the grazing cows mouths. On the other hand scientists believe that that the prairie dogs do a number of good deeds. Prairie dogs are virtual fertilizing machines. Biologists estimate that at the turn of the century perhaps 5 billion prairie dogs occupied millions of acres of short and mixed-grass prairie. But decades of determined eradication by Federal, State, and Local government reduced the 5 billion very rapidly.

There are five species left alive, the Mexican is listed as endangered and the Utah as threatened. The other species are the black-tailed(most numerous), the white-tailed, and the Gunnison's. Christened dogs by settlers because of their high pitched alarm calls, these members of the squirrel family live in burrows that can be 15 feet deep and more than a hundred feet long. Prairie dogs are mainly vegetarian. These dogs are also talented linguists. They process the most sophisticated natural animal language so far decoded.

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Prairie dogs eat as much as 7% of a ranch's forage, but may offer ranchers compensation. The compensation is that prairie dogs are natural fertilizers whose incessant grass clipping increases the protein content and digestibility of grass.

Some prairie dogs acquire plague from fleas infected with bacteria. Though most prairie dogs have fleas, few fleas are infected, and most public health officials believe the chance of contracting plague from prairie dog fleas is low. People and prairie dogs mix uneventfully. Biologists figure you'd need around a million contiguous acres to reconstruct a prairie ecosystem.