101 QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT PRAIRIE DOGS

Ask A PD Expert

photo by Elaine Miller Bond ©  All Rights Reserved.

 

Questions & Answers

41.  "Do prairie dogs live in Thailand?"

As discussed in Question #1, prairie dogs live only in North America naturally.  If you see a prairie dogs in Thailand, it must be a pet - or a pet that has escaped.

42.  "Are prairie dogs predators or prey?"

A predator is an animal that captures and eats other animals.  Victims of predation are called prey.

 

Under natural conditions, prairie dogs of all five species are herbivores that eat grasses, forbs, and other types of vegetation.  Except for occasional insects, prairie dogs usually do not eat other animals, and therefore are not predators.

 

Prairie dogs are prey for many animals.  Mammalian predators that try to capture prairie dogs include American badgers, black-footed ferrets, bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, long-tailed weasels, and red foxes.  Avian predators that try to capture prairie dogs include Cooper's hawks, ferruginous hawks, golden ealges, northern goshawks, peregrine falcons, prairie falcons, and red-tailed hawks.

43.  "Do prairie dogs hibernate?"

 

Hibernation occurs when an animal becomes dormant during late Autumn, Winter and early Spring.

Hibernating individuals appear to be in a deep sleep, with markedly low rates of respiration and heartbeat.

 

Of the five species of prairie dogs, the following three usually hibernate for 4-5 months of each year:

Gunnison’s, Utah, and white-tailed prairie dogs.  The other two species (black-tailed and Mexican

prairie dogs) usually do not hibernate.

 

Notice that I say “usually” regarding hibernation of prairie dogs.  Even though Gunnison’s, Utah, and

white-tailed prairie dogs usually hibernate, for example, individuals of all three species sometimes

appear above ground during uncommonly warm weather in December and January.  And black-tailed

prairie dogs usually do not hibernate, but sometimes will remain underground for several consecutive

weeks during especially cold weather in December and January.

 

Hibernation is usually a mechanism by which individuals avoid cold weather, when food is typically scarce. 

Black-tailed prairie dogs, however, usually remain active throughout the winter in colonies as far north as

Canada.  By contrast, Gunnison's prairie dogs hibernate in colonies as far south as Arizona and New Mexico. 

Some biologists think that shortage of water has been more important than cold weather in the evolution of

hibernation among prairie dogs.

 

44.  "If a colony of prairie dogs is victimized by shooting or poisoning, how does the colony respond?"

Shooting or poisoning reduces the number of prairie dogs at a colony-site, and therefore reduces the level of competition.  In response, the prairie dogs that survive the shooting or poisoning live longer, are more likely to reproduce, and sire more offspring (males) or have larger litters (females); further, young prairie dogs are more likely to reproduce as yearlings following shooting or poisoning.  Consequently, colony size usually increases rapidly in the year or two following shooting or poisoning, and sometimes reaches the original colony size after only two to three years.

           

If shooting or poisoning removes all of the prairie dogs at a colony, then return to the original colony size can only occur if prairie dogs move into (immigrate into) the deserted colony-size and reproduce there.  For more information about the population dynamics at prairie dog colonies following shooting, poisoning, plague, and other disturbances, please see various chapters in Conservation of the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Island Press, 2006). 

 

45.  "Are Meerkats closely related to prairie dogs?"

Meerkats and prairie dogs are both mammals.  But meerkats are carnivores of the mongoose family (Herpestidae), and prairie dogs are rodents of the squirrel family (Sciuridae).  Meerkats are therefore more closely related to other carnivores such as weasels, wolves, and bobcats than they are to prairie dogs.  

The scientific name for the meerkat is Suricata suricatta.  Meerkats live only in southern Africa.

Despite many differences, meerkats and prairie dogs have some striking similarities.  Adults of both groups weigh about 700 grams (1.5 pounds), are wary of numerous predators, live in social groups and frequently interact with each other, and are fascinating to observe.  Because of these similarities, many people confuse meerkats with prairie dogs.

46.  "How do Mexican prairie dogs differ from other species of prairie dogs?"

Regarding physical appearance, the Mexican prairie dog is remarkably similar to the black-tailed prairie dog. Indeed, some biologists think that Mexican and black-tailed prairie dogs belong to the same species. On average, Mexican prairie dogs have slightly longer tails and are slightly heavier than black-tailed prairie dogs.  Vocalizations of two species are almost identical.  About one-half (the outer, or distal, half) of the Mexican prairie dog's tail is usually black, but only about one-third of the black-tailed prairie dog's tail is usually black. The other species of prairie dogs (Gunnison's, Utah, and white-tailed) all have shorter, white- or gray-tipped tails.
 
The Mexican prairie dog has a small geographic range in central Mexico. The other four species of prairie dogs all live farther north. Most black-tailed prairie dogs live in states such as Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, but a few live in northern Mexico.

47.  "How fast are prairie dog populations declining?"

Because of shooting, poisoning, bubonic plague, and destruction of habitat, populations of black-tailed prairie dogs have declined by about 98% over the last 150 years or so; populations of the other four species of prairie dogs have also declined precipitously.  For more information about the shrinking of prairie dog populations, see also Questions #16, #20, and #31.

48.  "How long do prairie dogs live in captivity?" 

Under natural conditions, as discussed previously, female prairie dogs sometimes live as long as 8 years, and males sometimes live as long as 7 years.  In captivity, prairie dogs can live much longer.  Lynda Watson had a pet black-tailed prairie dog that lived for 13 years, and Dianne James had a pet black-tailed prairie dog that lived for 12.5 years.  A woman in Florida also claimed that her pet black-tailed prairie dog lived for 14 years.

More commonly, prairie dogs (of all species) live about 4-6 years in captivity.  Under excellent conditions, however—i.e., proper nutrition, good genetics, clean and safe environment, copious attention from their owners—prairie dogs sometimes can live longer than 10 years in captivity.  For more information about proper care of your pet prairie dog, please see several other questions at this website and the following additional website: www.prairiedoglover.com and Prairie Dog Lovers Forum at Yahoo Groups, which is an invitation only email list.  A request to join must be submitted here: “Join PDLF”.  

 

49.  "Do prairie dogs eat chickens?"

Under natural conditions, prairie dogs of all five species are primarily herbivorous (i.e., they eat plants).  Favorite foods of wild prairie dogs include grasses and forbs (grass-like plants).  See also Questions #8 and #9.

 

Under natural conditions, prairie dogs never encounter chickens, and thus have no opportunity to eat them.  In captivity, however, prairie dogs will eat almost anything—including many foods, such as chicken, that are nutritionally unsuitable.  For more information about what you should feed captive prairie dogs, please see Question #9 and the following website: <www.prairiedoglover.com>.

50.  "Do prairie dogs drink water under natural conditions?" 

Prairie dogs of all species live in semi-arid (dry) environments.  At some colonies, prairie dogs commonly do not see standing water for drinking for several consecutive months. 

 

With so little water, how do prairie dogs get the water they need?  They get most of their water from the vegetation that they eat—from the dew on the outside of the plants, and from the water within the plants themselves.  In late winter and early spring, prairie dogs sometimes get water by eating snow when it is available.  And, prairie dogs sometimes will drink water when it is temporarily available in small pools after heavy rainfall.

 

Even though prairie dogs usually do not usually experience snow or standing water under natural conditions, they do not rush to these sources when they are available.  Even though I watch carefully, for example, most prairie dogs do not drink from pools of water after a rainfall, and only rarely do I see prairie dogs eat snow.    

 

In years with copious precipitation (snowfall and rainfall), prairie dogs are more likely to survive, more likely to reproduce, and more likely to rear numerous (rather than just a few) offspring.    

 

 

51.  "How do I distinguish between male and female prairie dogs?" 

For all five species, sexing prairie dogs is surprisingly difficult.  The reason is that the vulva (the female’s external genitalia) is remarkably similar to the penis (the male’s external genitalia).  The key for sexing prairie dogs is the distance from the external genitalia to the anus (the end of the digestive tract, from which the prairie dog defecates).  For a female prairie dog, the vulva is always contiguous (immediately adjacent to) the anus.  For a male prairie dog, the penis is about 1.0-1.5 centimeters (about 0.5 inches) above (i.e., closer to the head than) the anus for adults, and about 0.5-1.0 centimeters (about 0.3 inches) above the anus for juveniles. 

 

The attached photographs should help you to see the difference between male and female prairie dogs. 

 

 

 

  

Distance between the anus and external genitalia is the way to distinguish between male and female prairie dogs that you can closely examine.  From a distance, unfortunately, reliable sexing of prairie dogs is almost impossible under natural conditions because males and females are about the same size, do not differ in color of the pelage, and perform many of the same behaviors.   

 

52.  "The original owner told me that both of my pets are black-tailed prairie dogs, even though one is much smaller than the other.  Further, one pet has typical brown fur, but the pelage (fur) of the other is reddish-orange.  Is it possible that I have two kinds of prairie dogs?" 

Great question! 
 
Both of your pets are probably black-tailed prairie dogs, but variation within the species is enormous for just about any trait that you can imagine.  Under natural conditions, for example, some adult female black-tailed prairie dogs weigh only about 400 grams (about 1 pound), but some adult males weigh as much as 1,000 grams (about 2.5 pounds; see also Questions 2, 25, and 29).  Some black-tailed prairie dogs have uniformly brown fur, others are mostly yellowish, and some are reddish-orange like your pet.  Under natural conditions, the pelage of black-tailed prairie dogs is sometimes markedly (and temporarily) influenced by the color of the soil where they have recently excavated.  The other species of prairie dogs show similar sorts of variation.
 
The outer (distal) part of the tail of the black-tailed prairie dog is usually black.  But even here the variation is substantial.  I have seen some individuals for which the outer one-third of the tail is a deep black, but other individuals have only a small amount of black in the tail.  The Mexican prairie dog is the only other species that usually has black in the distal part of the tail.  The other three species (Gunnison's, Utah, and white-tailed prairie dogs) usually have white- or gray-tipped tails.

53.  "When my pet canine dog was chasing a prairie dog, the prairie dog turned around and tried to attack my dog.  Is this normal?  If my dog had been bitten or scratched, might it have contracted a disease from the prairie dog?"

For most of its natural predators such as American badgers, bobcats, coyotes, golden eagles, and prairie falcons, the first defense of a prairie dog of all five species is to run.  If the predator gets too close, the prairie dog submerges into a burrow. 
 
It is a rarity that a prairie dog does not have time to submerge when attacked by a predator.  In that case--and in the case with your dog--the prairie dog sometimes will turn around and try to attack.  Usually the attack is futile, but it might startle or frighten the predator just enough so that the prairie dog can escape into a burrow.
 
As just noted, prairie dogs flee from almost all their natural enemies.  Sometimes, however, they will chase and attack smaller predators such as red-tailed hawks that have landed, long-tailed weasels, and snakes.
 
If a prairie dog bites or scratches your dog, the probability that your pet will get sick is REALLY LOW.  Transmission of a disease from a prairie dog to a canine dog is theoretically possible, but exceedingly unlikely.
 
One last note: In the future, I hope that you will either keep your dog away from prairie dog colonies, or keep him on a short leash.  Prairie dogs have enough natural enemies without having to worry about runaway canines.

54.  "How do Mexican prairie dogs differ from the other species?"

Regarding physical appearance, the Mexican prairie dog is remarkably similar to the black-tailed prairie dog. Indeed, some biologists think that Mexican and black-tailed prairie dogs belong to the same species. On average, Mexican prairie dogs have slightly longer tails and are slightly heavier than black-tailed prairie dogs.  Vocalizations of two species are almost identical.  About one-half (the outer, or distal, half) of the Mexican prairie dog's tail is usually black, but only about one-third of the black-tailed prairie dog's tail is usually black. The other species of prairie dogs (Gunnison's, Utah, and white-tailed) all have shorter, white- or gray-tipped tails.   For photographs of the five different species of prairie dogs, please see the following websites:

 

http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/mammals/btprairiedog/

http://www.prairiewildlife.org/pdogs.htm or

http://www.prairiedoglover.com/species.htm

 

The Mexican prairie dog has a small geographic range in central Mexico. The other four species of prairie dogs all live farther north. Most black-tailed prairie dogs live in states such as Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas, but a few live in northern Mexico.

55.  "From where did prairie dogs evolve?" 

Nobody can answer this question with certainty, but mammalogists theorize that prairie dogs evolved millions of years ago from ground squirrels, their closest living relatives. 

 

Prairie dogs currently live only in North America.  Similarly, prairie dog fossils have been found only in North America.

56.  "Why are prairie dogs so important?" 

Prairie dogs are important for many reasons, as summarized below.

 

1) Prairie dogs serve as prey for mammalian predators such as American badgers, black-footed ferrets, bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, long-tailed weasels, and red foxes.  Avian predators that try to capture prairie dogs include Cooper’s hawks, ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, northern goshawks, peregrine falcons, prairie falcons, and red-tailed hawks.  If prairie dogs disappear, then all these predators will be affected.

 

2) Burrows of prairie dogs can be as deep as 5 meters (15 feet), and can extend laterally as much as 30 meters (100 feet).  These burrows therefore significantly affect the recycling of water and nutrients.

 

3) By burrowing, prairie dogs expose subsoil that otherwise would remain underground.  This subsoil promotes the growth of certain plants.  Scarlet globemallow and prairie dog weed (also called fetid marigold), for example, are plants that are especially common near prairie dog burrows.

 

4) Because of ways that prairie dogs affect the soil, certain plants are more nutritious at prairie dog colony-sites than elsewhere.  Consequently, animals such as American bison and pronghorn—and perhaps cattle as well in certain regions—commonly feed at colony-sites. 

 

5) Many animals use active or abandoned prairie dog burrows for refuge and for rearing their offspring.  Burrowing owls and black-footed ferrets, for example, commonly take over prairie dog burrows. 

 

6) Finally, many people like prairie dogs.  They enjoy the antics of the prairie dogs themselves, and they also appreciate watching the many animals attracted to prairie dog colony sites.

 

For more information about the importance of prairie dogs to the grassland ecosystem of western North America, please see other questions at this website and various chapters of Conservation of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Island Press, 2006).

57.  "My pet prairie dog is sick.  It is not eating much, and has almost no energy.  Do you have any recommendations?" 

If your prairie dog is sick or injured, we recommend that you take it to a veterinarian (animal doctor). 

 

Veterinarians have been treating sick cats and dogs for decades, and can recognize and cure most of the common diseases and problems.  Unfortunately, however, veterinarians rarely see sick prairie dogs, and have little first-hand information about how to recognize and cure most of the common diseases and problems.  Indeed, most veterinarians have never even seen a prairie dog.  Consequently, your veterinarian might not be able to help your sick or injured prairie dog.

 

If your veterinarian cannot help your ailing prairie dog, we recommend that you go to the following website for assistance: http://www.prairiedoglover.com  See also Question #23.

58.  "As an alternative to killing them, has anyone developed a method of "birth control" for prairie dogs under natural conditions?"

Biologists have investigated two methods for “birth control” among wild prairie dogs.  The first method involves removal or castration (neutering) of adult males.  This method has two problems: (a) capturing all the adult males in a colony is exceedingly difficult, and (b) if only a few males escape capture and castration, they can impregnate most of the females in the colony.

 

The second method of “birth control” involves feeding prairie dogs with oats treated with a synthetic estrogen called diethylstilbestrol (DES).  DES makes females less likely to conceive, and those females that do conceive usually abort their embryos early in pregnancy.  DES has two problems: (a) Besides prairie dogs, other animals such as ground squirrels, rabbits, and many birds will eat oats treated with DES—and therefore are unlikely to reproduce.  (b) Predators such as American badgers, golden eagles, and prairie falcons that capture and eat prairie dogs treated with DES will end up consuming DES within the fat and muscle of the prairie dogs, and therefore will be unlikely to reproduce.  Because of these many secondary effects, current usage of DES is illegal.

59.  "What species of prairie dog lives in New Mexico?"

Two species of prairie dogs inhabit New Mexico.  Black-tailed prairie dogs live in the eastern and southern sections of the state.  Gunnison’s prairie dogs live in the northwestern corner.

60.  "What diseases affect wild prairie dogs?  What is the impact of these diseases on survivorship and reproduction?  And how quickly do prairie dog colony-sites recover after an outbreak of disease?" 

First, I will give you short answers to these three important questions. 

 

Two diseases that affect wild prairie dogs are tularemia (also called rabbit fever) and plague (also called bubonic plague or sylvatic plague).  Monkeypox occured among a few captive prairie dogs in spring 2003, but has not been reported among wild prairie dogs.  Plague and monkeypox are introduced (exotic) diseases, but tularemia is a natural (native) disease.

 

Tularemia is rare among wild prairie dogs, and we know almost nothing about its impact.  Plague, by contrast, is common, and poses a severe threat to the conservation of all five prairie dog species.  Prairie dogs infected with plague usually die quickly.  With fleas as a vector, plague spreads quickly among prairie dogs, and mortality within a plague-infected colony usually approaches 100%. 

 

If mortality at a plague-infected colony-site is 100%, then recovery at that colony-site can only occur if new prairie dogs (immigrants) arrive from other colonies.  If mortality is not 100%, then substantial recovery of the infected colony-site—i.e., re-population of the colony site with offspring of those prairie dogs that survived the epidemic of plague—can sometimes occur within 2-3 years.  For reasons that are not clear, total recovery of a colony-site after plague almost never occurs.

 

For longer answers to these questions, please see various chapters of Conservation of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (University of Chicago Press, 2006).  See also Questions #11 and #20.

61.  "Is it possible to have a pet prairie dog if I do not live in the United States?" 

Since 2002, shipping prairie dogs from the United States to other countries has been illegal.  For about 10 years before 2002,  however, shipping prairie dogs to other countries was common.  Belgium, China, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, and Spain are some of the countries that commonly imported prairie dogs before 2002.

 

Pet prairie dogs commonly live for about 5 years in captivity—and sometimes as long as 10 years (see Question #48).  Consequently, you might be able to find an older prairie dog pet outside the United States.  Offspring of prairie dogs that were shipped out of the United States before 2002 might also be available as pets in your country.    

 

62.  "What is the scientific name for the prairie dog?" 

Mammalogists (biologists who study mammals) currently recognize five species of prairie dogs.  Below are their scientific (Latin) names:

 

Black-tailed prairie dog             Cynomys ludovicianus

 

Gunnison’s prairie dog             Cynomys gunnisoni

 

Mexican prairie dog                 Cynomys mexicanus

 

Utah prairie dog                       Cynomys parvidens

 

White-tailed prairie dog             Cynomys leucurus

63.  "My pet prairie dog has several bare patches with no fur.  Is this normal?"

Black-tailed, Gunnison’s, Mexican, and Utah prairie dogs molt their entire pelage (fur) twice each year.  In the switch from long, thick winter fur to shorter, sparser summer fur, molting starts on the underside and moves to the dorsal (top) side, where it starts near the eyes and progresses towards the tail.  In the switch from summer fur to winter fur, the pattern is reversed: from tail to eyes to underside.  At least in some areas, white-tailed prairie dogs molt their entire pelage only once each year, in early summer. 

 

During the process of molting, old fur is usually slowly and systematically replaced with new fur.  Occasionally, however, patches of old fur fall out before the new fur appears—and this is probably what you are observing with your pet prairie dog.  Don’t fret, because soon your pet should be fully furred again. 

 

Under natural conditions, a prairie dog’s fur sometimes gets pulled out in a vicious fight with another prairie dog.  Figure 5.4 of The Black-tailed Prairie Dog (University of Chicago Press, 1995) shows male-24, who had lost most of the fur at the top of his head after a series of fights with other males.  We gave male-24 the nickname of “Baldie.”  When the time for molting arrived, Baldie regained all the fur on his head again.

 

64.  "Do you think that hunting of prairie dogs should be illegal?"

To most people, “hunting” involves killing an animal and then using that animal in some meaningful way—e.g., using the muscle for food or using the pelage for clothing.  In this sense, “hunting” of prairie dogs almost never occurs.  People who kill prairie dogs with rifles usually make no attempt to use the carcasses for any purpose, and such “recreational shooting,” or “varmint hunting,” occurs for all five species of prairie dogs, and especially for black-tailed prairie dogs.

 

For the last 150 years or so, recreational shooting of prairie dogs has been legal throughout most of the ranges for all five species of prairie dogs.  Even in those time periods or areas where recreational shooting has been illegal, shooting commonly occurs because enforcement of the ban is so difficult.  

 

For most of the last century, recreational shooting usually has not seriously depressed populations.  Reductions from poisoning and plague have been far more serious; see also Question #11 and Question #20.  In the last decade or so, however, interest in recreational shooting has soared, and marksmen have begun to use high-technology, long-range rifles.  Today’s losses from recreational shooting therefore can be substantial.  In South Dakota in 2000, for example, recreational shooters killed 1.2 million prairie dogs.  

 

Landowners sometimes profit by charging a fee to persons who come from afar to shoot prairie dogs.  Consequently, rather than delete them via poisoning, landowners sometimes want their colonies to persist, and try to protect them from over-shooting.  Paradoxically, colonies where marksmen pay to shoot might persist longer than colonies with no shooting—because income from shooting gives landowners a reason to conserve, rather than eradicate, colonies.  I hesitate to mention this rationale, because shooting prairie dogs is so repugnant to me and many other people—but I would prefer the long term survival of a colony with recreational shooting over the immediate termination of that colony via poisoning. 

 

Unfortunately, legal or illegal recreational shooting of prairie dogs will not soon disappear.  Our best hope for reducing recreational shooting of my favorite animals is to help people to better understand and appreciate prairie dogs and their keystone role for the grassland ecosystems of western North America.

65.  "If a prairie dog bites me, do I need to see a physician?"

When a prairie dog or any other animal bites a person, an infection can result from pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms such as certain bacteria) that enter the body from the animal’s saliva, or from other pathogens that enter the open wound caused by the bite.

 

If a sick prairie dog bites a person, it might infect that person with a disease such as plague or tularemia.  If you are bitten by a prairie dog that is behaving abnormally—e.g., is unusually lethargic, or, contrarily, is unusually vicious—then you should see a physician immediately and inform him that you have been bitten by a prairie dog that might have plague or tularemia.

 

Minor, localized infections sometimes result after a person is bitten by a healthy prairie dog.  If you are bitten by a healthy prairie dog, you should wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, flush the wound with sterile saline, and then apply a local antiseptic.  Depending on the severity of the bite, you might want to consult your local physician as well (see also above). 

 

During the process of weighing, ear-tagging, and marking of >25,000 prairie dogs over the last 35 years, for example, I have been bitten about 50 times.  Many of these bites have led to a trivial, localized infection with slight swelling, and all have completely healed within a few days.

66.  "What do prairie dogs eat?"

In general, prairie dogs are of all five species are herbivorous—i.e., they eat plants.  Especially for black-tailed, Mexican, and white-tailed prairie dogs, individuals forage almost exclusively in the home territory.  Consequently, to a significant degree, a prairie dog’s diet depends on what plants occur in the home territory.  Available plants differ among the different species of prairie dogs, and within different habitats of the same species.  Common plants consumed by wild black-tailed prairie dogs include blue grama, buffalo grass, fetid marigold, fringed sagewort, needleleaf, needle-and-thread grass, prickly pear cactus, sand dropseed, scarlet globemallow, and western wheatgrass.  Common plants that black-tailed prairie dogs usually avoid include horseweed, sage, and threeawn.  Scientific names for these plants are in Conservation of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Island Press, 2006).  

67.  "What is the difference between dogs and prairie dogs?"

Dogs and prairie dogs are both mammals.  Dogs are carnivores of the dog family (Canidae), and their close relatives include wolves and coyotes.  Prairie dogs are rodents of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), and their close relatives include chipmunks, ground squirrels, marmots, and tree squirrels.   

68.  "Do prairie dogs harm crops?"

Prairie dogs of all five species can interfere with agriculture in three ways.  (a) Prairie dogs—and black-tailed prairie dogs, in particular—sometimes inhabit areas that otherwise would be suitable for farming.  (b) When prairie dogs live near farms, they sometimes invade, trespass and consume certain crops.  (c) The mounds at the entrances of prairie dog burrows sometimes impede, and might damage, certain types of farming machinery.

 

This discussion underscores the importance of focal areas for the conservation of prairie dogs.  A focal area is a site of sufficient size so that a colony of prairie dogs can be large enough to provide suitable habitat for black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and other species that depend on prairie dogs for survival.  Because most focal areas are largely or entirely within federal or state lands, interference with agricultural and ranching operations should be minimal.

69.  "How fast can prairie dogs run?"

Prairie dogs of all species are quick, but they are not especially fast.  Let me explain.

 

When a prairie dog lives in a colony with many other prairie dogs, it is usually surrounded by hundreds of burrow entrances.  Indeed, the nearest entrance is usually less than 5-10 meters away.  Prairie dogs know exactly where these entrances are, and can submerge into one almost instantly if a predator suddenly appears.  In this sense, prairie dogs are really quick.

 

If a prairie dog is dispersing from one colony to another, then a person in good physical condition can easily run it down.  I know, because on several occasions my colleagues and I have captured lone individuals that are distant from colony-sites.  In this sense, prairie dogs are not especially fast.  Consequently, dispersing prairie dogs in search of a new colony are highly susceptible to capture by predators such as coyotes, golden eagles, and prairie falcons.

70.  "What is the current overall population size of prairie dogs?"

I will answer this question for the black-tailed prairie dog, the species for which we have the best information about overall population size.

 

Because they inhabit 3 countries and 11 states, estimates of the overall population size of the black-tailed prairie dog are elusive.  Further, the density of prairie dogs within a colony varies enormously with factors such as climate, predation, poisoning, and disease.  To make estimates of overall population size, biologists use information from visual counts of both colonies and prairie dogs; they also use information from aerial photography and satellite imagery.

 

Today’s black-tailed prairie dogs inhabit between 0.5 and 0.8 million hectares (1.2-2.0 million acres; a hectare is 2.47 acres).  The cumulative population of adults and yearlings in early spring, before the emergences of juveniles from their natal burrows, is between 12.5 and 20 million.  Following the first emergences of juveniles in late spring, the cumulative population is between 25 and 40 million prairie dogs.  These estimates assume densities of 25 adults and yearlings per hectare and 25 juveniles per hectare.  These numbers might seem high, but they are only about 2% of the overall population size of black-tailed prairie dogs about 200 years ago.  See also questions 16, 20, and 47.

71.  "What are some non-lethal methods for maintaining or reducing the number of prairie dogs at a colony site?"

Non-lethal methods to maintain or reduce the number of prairie dogs at a colony site include treatment of the area with herbicides to eliminate certain types of vegetation; contraceptive agents; visual barriers; and, in areas with grazing by domestic livestock, limitation or postponement of grazing.  For a review of these non-lethal methods, please see “Methods and economics of managing prairie dogs” (Chapter 9 in Conservation and Management of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog).  See also Questions 18, 44, and 58.

72.  "How level must the terrain be for prairie dogs to survive?"

Prairie dogs of all five species usually live in flat grasslands (i.e., prairies).  They also inhabit grasslands with a slope of about 10% or less.  Under extreme conditions—e.g., high population density with little other available habitat—prairie dog colonies sometimes expand into sub-optimal areas where the slope of the terrain is slightly greater than 10%. 

 

73.  "I have prairie dogs in my front yard in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Should I be concerned about the safety of my family or my home and property?"

 

Because humans have persecuted them for the last 150 years, prairie dogs are afraid of people.  If you and your children use your house regularly, then prairie dogs probably will not come too close.  Oh, they might excavate a burrow or two near your home when you are away for several hours or a few days, but they are unlikely to use those burrows for sleeping and rearing of offspring.  If you fill the burrows near you home with dirt or rocks, or put any outside equipment near them, the prairie dogs almost certainly will stop using the burrows. 

 

As explained in Question #28, the probability that prairie dogs will damage the foundation of your home is really low—simply because prairie dogs are so wary of people and will stay away from your home if you and your family are as busy as most Americans going in and out.  Even for an abandoned home, the probability of significant damage to the foundation of the home from prairie dogs is low.  

 

Do road crews in and near Colorado Springs salt the roads during snowy conditions in winter?  Prairie dogs like salt, and sometimes will chew on salty wires underneath cars—so that your car might not start on the day after such chewing.   If you park your car near your home and use it regularly, then, for the reasons listed above, the prairie dogs in your yard probably will not bother your vehicle. 

 

Prairie dogs are charming animals to watch, but they are still wild animals.  Further, prairie dogs have fleas, and sometimes get sick with plague or tularemia, diseases that also can infect humans (See also Questions #20 and #60).  Please do not feed the prairie dogs in your yard—and please do not try to pet them or catch them by hand.  If your prairie dogs ever seem sick—e.g., if many of them suddenly disappear, or if they seem disoriented or act unusual in other ways—then you should immediately contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife for assistance and advice.

74.  "My family and I will visit the western United States this summer.  Can you recommend good places for us to see prairie dogs living under natural conditions?"

Because populations of all five species of prairie dogs are dwindling, finding good places to observe them is difficult.  Below I have listed my favorite sanctuaries in the United States for observing prairie dogs living under natural conditions.

 

Black-tailed prairie dogs: Badlands National Park, South Dakota; Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Montana; Custer State Park, South Dakota;  Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota (where I studied them for 16 years).

 

Gunnison’s prairie dogs: Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado; Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona (where I studied them for 7 years).

 

Mexican prairie dog: Mexican prairie dogs do not live in the United States.  

 

Utah prairie dogs: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (where I studied them for 15 years).

 

white-tailed prairie dog: Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado; Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado/Utah.  

 

Perhaps some of our readers know other good places to observe prairie dogs living under natural conditions.  If so, please send them to us and we will add them to our list. 

75.  "How large are prairie dogs?"

 

Because adult prairie dogs of all species are usually about 23-35 centimeters (10-14 inches tall).  Adult body mass is usually 500-1,000 grams (1-2 pounds).  For more information about the size of prairie dogs, see also Questions #2 and #29.

76.  "Why are prairie dogs in danger of extinction?"

 

All five species of prairie dogs are rare.  Technically, however, only two are on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants (FLETWP).  The Mexican prairie dog is on FLETWP with a status of “endangered.”  The Utah prairie dog is on FLETWP with a status of “threatened.”  Recent attempts to add the other three species of prairie dogs to FLETWP have failed.

 

For more information about the current status of prairie dog populations and factors that have contributed to the decline of these populations, please see Questions #16, #20, #31, #34, #39, #47, and #60.      

77.  "To protect it from predators or to prevent it from expanding, is it possible to ebnclose a prairie dog colony with fencing?"

 

In theory, surrounding a colony of prairie dogs with fencing would keep out terrestrial predators such as bobcats, coyotes, and red foxes.  Further, fencing should preclude dispersal of prairie dogs into areas that might interfere with farming, ranching, and other operations.  In practice, however, to enclose a prairie dog colony with fencing is an expensive, formidable task.  Burrows of prairie dogs are sometimes as deep as 5 meters (15 feet), for example—so the fencing would need to extend that deep to prevent dispersal.  Deep fencing also would be necessary to prevent the entry of American badgers.  And, unless the enclosure includes fencing over the top, it would provide no protection from aerial predators such as golden eagles and prairie falcons.  Finally, fencing sometimes leads to unnaturally high densities and inbreeding—because the fencing precludes both emigration (dispersal of prairie dogs) and immigration.     

 

78.  "Can prairie dogs survive in states such as Florida?"

 

Prairie dogs probably evolved from ground squirrels, and have been living in western North America for about 3 million years.  Only three countries—Canada, Mexico, and the United States—contain prairie dogs living under natural conditions.  States within the United States with prairie dogs include Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

 

People have sometimes tried to introduce prairie dogs—usually black-tailed prairie dogs—into areas where they do not normally live.  Introduction-sites include several Asian and European countries, and several USA states such as Florida and New York.  Sometimes prairie dogs survive in non-native areas, but often they do not because the vegetation there does not provide adequate nutrition; because the soil there does not easily support prairie dog burrow-systems, which can extend as deep as 5 meters (15 feet); because the humidity is too high; or for other reasons.

 

In general, introducing prairie dogs, or any other animals, into a non-native area is imprudent.  As noted above, the introduced animals frequently do not survive well.  And, if they do survive, the effect on native wildlife can be devastating.  Witness, for example, the serious consequences that have resulted from introductions of non-native species such as black rats, nutria (coypus), and starlings into the United States.

79.  "When do prairie dogs attain sexual matureity and first mate?"

 

For Gunnison’s, Mexican, Utah, and white-tailed prairie dogs living under natural conditions, females usually attain sexual maturity and first mate in the first spring after they are born—i.e., when they are about 10 months old.  Males of these species sometimes reach sexual maturity and first mate at 10 months of age, but commonly defer sexual maturation and first mating until the second spring after they are born—i.e., when they are about 22 months old.

 

For black-tailed prairie dogs living under natural conditions, both males and females usually delay sexual maturation and first mating until the second spring after they are born—when they are about 22 months old.  At my study colony of black-tailed prairie dogs in South Dakota, for example, 65% of females and 94% of males did not attain sexual maturity and mate until they were 22 months old. 

 

For all species, sexual maturation and mating are more likely when colony density is low and food is abundant.  Male and female black-tailed prairie dogs, for example, are more likely to attain sexual maturity and first mate at southern latitudes (e.g., Texas and Oklahoma) than at more northern latitudes (e.g., Montana and North Dakota)—because southern latitudes have longer grower seasons, so that food is usually more abundant. 

 

Under conditions of captivity, when food and water are typically copious, pet prairie dogs are more likely than wild prairie dogs to attain sexual maturity in the first spring after birth.         

80.  "Can prairie dogs swim?"

 

One of my research assistants once observed a Gunnison’s prairie dog swim a short distance in a small pond.  It has been documented that pet prairie dogs can swim.  Under natural conditions, however, the vast majority of prairie dogs of all five species never see large bodies of water that would allow them to swim.  Natural selection for swimming by prairie dogs therefore must be minimal.

Disclaimer:  The answers provided on this website do not necessarily represent the views of the Prairie Dog Coalition.

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