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Prairie dogs are a member of the taxonomic order rodentia, but are a closer relative of squirrels than to rats or mice. A more appropriate name for them would be "prairie squirrels." Black-tailed prairie dogs (above) on average measure approximately 14-17 inches long and weigh between 1 and 3 pounds. Their physical appearance is generally described as small and stout with a black-tipped tail, large eyes, and a tan-brown pelt, but there also genetic color variations of this species.
There are five species of prairie dogs in the United States: Mexican (listed as endangered in 1970), Utah (listed as threatened in 1973), Gunnison, White-Tailed and finally, the most social of the species, the Black-Tailed. They are found east of the continental divide, and west of the Mississippi River, in the following states: Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. They are also found in Canada and Mexico.
At one time in history, black-tailed prairie dogs are believed to have occupied more than 100 million acres of grasslands. A recent report indicates that they presently inhabit less than one million acres, a reduction in the occupied black-tailed prairie dog habitat by approximately 99 percent.
A great deal of controversy surrounds prairie dogs because in the areas where prairie dogs inhabit the prairies, myths and legends are passed on from generation to generation, conjuring up ideas such as "they're everywhere", or "they're nothing but overgrown rats that destroy good rangeland" or "their burrows can cause cattle or horses to break a leg" or "they carry plague." The prairie dog is a misunderstood species. Based upon scientific fact, the benefits of prairie dogs to the health of an ecosystem far outweigh any of those urban legends.
This page will address some myths or legends that besiege prairie dogs. Any questions not covered here about myths or legends may be asked at the Ask a PD Expert website.
Finally, as prairie dogs continue to take center stage in sometimes highly emotional conflicts, advocates are asking for accurate scientific data to be collected and made available to the general public for the decision makers in our government to make sound, scientific decisions regarding prairie dogs.
Myths vs. Facts
MYTH: Prairie Dogs Are Everywhere
FACT: Black-tailed prairie dogs occupy less than 1 percent of the land they occupied a century ago, primarily due a number of factors including land development, intensive control programs (poisoning) largely done by the federal, state and local governments, conversion of habitat to croplands, sylvatic plague and recreational shooting. The remaining population of prairie dogs are in isolated and fragmented colonies. Healthy prairie dog complexes (multiple colonies occurring within close proximity of each other) that sustain the multitude of plants and animals that depend on the prairie dog's network of tunnels and chambers are rare. In July 1998, the National Wildlife Federation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to emergency list the prairie dog to the Endangered Species Act listing. The service subsequently found the petition "warranted but precluded." The interpretation of precluded means that the black-tailed prairie dog became a "candidate" for listing subject to an annual status review. In a status review in August 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the black-tailed prairie dog from the list of candidates for Endangered Species Act listing, which was a tragic set-back for the prairie dog ecosystem in the Great Plains. In February of 2005, the government rescinded the ban on poisoning prairie dogs on Federal lands based on inaccurate reporting. More than ever before, the black-tailed prairie dog needs our help. To preclude its listing, state and federal agencies, members of the public, and non-government organizations need to analyze sound scientific data in order to determine the best management strategy for this small prairie dweller.
MYTH: Prairie Dogs Multiply Like Rabbits
FACT: Black-tailed prairie dogs have a low rate of reproduction. On average, females do not breed until their second year of life, are in estrus for only 5 hours out of the year, and only produce a single litter annually of maybe 3 or 4 pups. In addition, on average, they only live 3 to 5 years, while disease, predators and physical barriers to expansion or lack of food cause new mothers to practice infanticide further complicating matters.
MYTH: Prairie Dogs Spread Plague
FACT: Fleas spread plague. Prairie dogs rarely transmit plague to humans. The disease however, does pose a significant threat to prairie dog populations, because prairie dogs lack immunity to plague and usually die within a week after contact with the plague bacterium. Furthermore, humans are much less apt to contract plague from a prairie dog, than being struck by lightning. The handful of cases in which prairie dogs have directly transmitted plague to humans involved humans shooting and skinning prairie dogs. Plague in humans is easily treatable with standard antibiotics with a quick recovery period. Other mammals including mice, cats and dogs contract, carry and spread plague however, and should be kept out of prairie dog towns.
MYTH: Prairie Dogs and Cattle Can't Co-exist
FACT: Although prairie dogs do eat some of the same grass that cattle eat, science has proven that the constant digging and clipping of grasses by prairie dogs causes soil turnover that results in changes of the composition of vegetation on the prairie. This improves the nutritional quality of existing grasses and encourages growth of high forage quality forbs. Both cattle and prairie dogs have demonstrated a preference for grazing together, just as bison and prairie dogs have historically preferred each other's company, contrary to what farmers, ranchers and the livestock industry claim. Scientists have proven that even though there is less vegetation in areas where prairie dogs and bison coexist, grasses that were continually trimmed by prairie dogs were more nutritious and more digestible, and because of prairie dog grazing, there is more live plant growth and higher protein content than in old or dead plant material.
MYTH: Prairie Dogs Cause Cattle, Bison and Horses To Break Legs
FACT: Some farmers and ranchers have reported that prairie dog burrows tear up the land and pose a hazard to livestock, which might stumble and break a leg. Such cases appear to occur infrequently, if at all. Other hazards to livestock are much more prevalent, for example: exposure to extreme weather / temperatures, predators, and barbed wire.
MYTH: Prairie Dogs Are a Nuisance Species and Are Worthless
FACT: Prairie dogs are known to be a valuable keystone species for hundreds of plants and animals on prairie grasslands. Turtles, snakes, insects, spiders, coyotes, badgers, black-footed ferrets, and birds including ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, and golden eagles are just some of the prairie wildlife that depend on prairie dogs and the habitat they create. Although in some areas of the country, it may seem that they are indeed everywhere, the problem is with expansion and smaller colonies. The large prairie dog towns that are necessary to sustain a healthy ecosystem for other species are nowhere near the historic towns that once existed. Through continued education efforts, many anti-prairie dog people who at one time may have considered them to be pests, now view them very differently. Upon meeting a prairie dog up close and personally, many readily admit they had no idea what special animals they truly are.