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Black-tailed prairie dogs are small, diurnal (out during the day), burrowing rodents, and are active above ground throughout the entire year. Unlike white-tailed and Gunnison’s prairie dogs, they do not hibernate. The basic social (family) group of the prairie dog is called a coterie and a colony is often composed of several coteries. Although prairie dogs are territorial, individuals will move between different coteries, or even different colonies, throughout their lifetime (Hoogland 1995).
Black-tailed prairie dogs reportedly have only one litter per year. In Colorado, breeding occurs in late February or early March with pups emerging from the den in late May to early June (Fitzgerald et al. 1994). Pups are fully weaned when they come above ground (Fitzgerald et al. 1994).
Their burrows are important both for defense against predators and protection from the weather. Generally, burrows have only one or two entrances, but may have as many as six entrances (Sheets et al. 1971, Hoogland 1995).
Species Associated With Prairie Dogs
In some instances, prairie dogs can be considered a “keystone species,” in that they may have a large effect on community structure or ecosystem function, and this effect, depending on prairie dog abundance, may be large (Mills et al. 1993, Power et al. 1996). This effect may be positive or negative. When prairie dogs provide habitat and prey resources for other species of wildlife, they are affecting the ecosystem in a positive way. Research indicates that nine vertebrate species can be dependent upon prairie dogs at least to a small degree (Kotliar et al. 1999). These include the black-footed ferret (Mustella nigripes), Mountain Plover, Western Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, swift fox (Vulpes velox), Horned Lark, deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) (which can also exist without prairie dogs and are frequently present in wetland/riparian ecosystems), and grasshopper mouse (Onychomys leucogaster). However, prairie dogs can also affect the ecosystem negatively by increasing opportunity for invasive (frequently noxious) plants, decreasing aboveground biomass (which can decrease availability of forage resources or valuable cover habitat for other wildlife species or cattle), and increasing soil erosion.
In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("USFWS") received two petitions to list the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Each petition listed several factors as major threats to the long-term viability and conservation of this species: habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, disease, unregulated shooting, and poisoning. In August 2004, the USFWS, after reviewing the best available scientific information, determined that the black-tailed prairie dog did not in fact warrant listing.
Regardless of the black-tailed prairie dog’s threatened or endangered species status, conversion of native grasslands to urban development has altered the role and function of the historic grassland ecosystem and made prairie dog conservation and management an important, but challenging, issue for urban landowners. Many urban prairie dog colonies are isolated and support few, if any, associated species. Moreover, because they are generally unable to expand, colony pressure on the land is greater, resulting in denuded soil with consequent wind and water erosion, damage to landscaped property such as parks, and growth of noxious weeds. In cases of colony proximity to playgrounds, ballfields, and trails, people often express health and safety concerns. It is in these instances that we at Roe Ecological Services are often called in to help manage the colony, whether through live relocation to another property, or removal and donation to a raptor rehabilitation facility.
Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) have the largest geographic range of all of species of prairie dogs, and have historically occupied areas of the Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan through 11 states to northern Mexico. They inhabit the short- and mixed-grass prairie grasslands of western North America.