Prairie Dogs

Gunnison’s prairie dogs are one of northern New Mexico’s original inhabitants; colonies covered millions of acres of this vast land for hundreds of thousands of years, coexisting with bison, pronghorn, black-footed ferrets, swift foxes, and many others. They played—and in areas where they can thrive, continue to play—a “keystone” role in the grassland ecosystem, meaning that numerous other species depend on them for habitat and food. Predators such as golden eagles, badgers, coyotes, and rare black-footed ferrets, as well as many songbirds, insects, and other animals, are dependent on prairie dogs. Keystone species help to support the ecosystems or entire communities of life of which they are a part. In Santa Fe, we are now working to help the remaining Gunnison’s prairie dogs survive.

Prairie dogs provide important ecosystem services. “Ecosystem services” are all of the ways ecosystems and their component species sustain human life. Prairie dogs provide the following ecosystem services and probably others not yet discovered:

  • Increased groundwater recharge and water penetration
  • Soil aeration
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Nutrient cycling via burrowing and defecation
  • Increased nitrogen content of soil and plants
  • Creation of a diverse mosaic of grassland habitats
  • Prevention of desertification via mesquite and woody plant control
  • Fire breaks
  • Habitat creation and food provision for dependent and associated species
  • Wildlife-viewing opportunities for diverse species including prairie dogs themselves, mammalian carnivores, and raptors

There are five species of prairie dogs: Gunnison’s, black-tailed, white-tailed, Utah and Mexican. Mexican prairie dogs are listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA); Utah prairie dogs are listed as “threatened.” Due to habitat destruction, shooting, and federally-sponsored poisoning efforts, all five species have declined dramatically from historic numbers, and most occupy five percent or less of their historic range.

Prairie dogs live communally in colonies made up of interdependent family groups called “coteries,” often making social visits and greeting each other with a kiss. They are intelligent mammals with a complex “language” of more than 500 recognizable sounds, according to the research of Dr. Con Slobodchikoff*, who has been studying, recording, and interpreting “prairie dog talk” for over twenty years.

However, their future is bleak unless they can be protected, relocated, and supported through supplemental feeding; drought and development are encroaching upon them and crowding them out of their natural habitat.

Between 1996 and 2003, 200 acres of prairie dogs were lost to development in Santa Fe proper and in 2004, 2,560 acres were eliminated in the nearby suburb of Eldorado. Of the 123 locations (considered too small to be called colonies) mapped in 2005 by the Prairie Dog Coalition, sixty-six had been eliminated by 2008. All of this despite the city ordinance passed in 2001 intended to stem the disappearance of prairie dogs from our region.

* Professor and author of “Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society”