My first encounter with prairie dogs was the summer after third grade enroute to our old home in Washington State, on I 90 three days out of Chicago. Even before we were in South Dakota the signs started appearing: "Free Ice Water at Wall Drug", and "Pet the Prairie Dogs at Wall Drug". I insisted that we stop.
Decades later my first job in New Mexico was live-trapping and transplanting prairie dog colonies from Santa Fe to elsewhere; the City has a law forbidding the killing of the critters.
There was far more to prairie dogs than I could have imagined.
Termed "the keystone species" in the greater ecosystem of the Southwest, the creatures have been hunted and poisoned to near extinction in many places. In 1900, a single colony of prairie dogs spanning the U.S./Mexico border had a population of over one billion animals. Today, many established colonies are in peril and this sad fact has a cascading impact on other species, such as Endangered ferrets and hawks. If the prairie dogs could have been sustained at higher levels the millions of dollars spent keeping the ferrets and hawks alive in captivity would have been unnecessary.
Prairie dogs are the focus of blind hatred by many ranchers. Tragically, this is due to ignorance and the fact that many public agencies consider the species "non-charismatic" and thus unworthy of protections now afforded to grizzlies, eagles and wolves.
My work became an education: the team needed to observe each urban coloy for a week or more to identify family groups. Those groups were then kept together after live-trapping and transported to a new location in the countryside; to do otherwise would have been a death sentence.
Yet, the degree of hatred of these remarkable animals astonished me.
What I learned later from ranchers would lead me to compare the situation with coyotes; many stockmen will shoot coyotes on sight.
The difference is that coyotes' birth rates increase after their populations are diminished; prairie dogs simply die off.
Like coyotes, myths about prairie dogs endure.
Myth: Prairie dogs eat valuable forage that cattle might otherwise consume.
Fact: Prairie dogs do reduce the volume of forage but their presence increases the overall nutrients in the natural fodder, resulting in net nutritional gain. Further, prairie dog activity reduces prevalence and spread of mesquite and sagebrush which preempt grass cattle can consume. Mesquite and sagebrush also make cattle roundups more difficult.
Myth: Prairie dog activity damages soil.
Fact: Research shows prairie dog colonies enrich soil in a variety of ways, resulting in enhanced ground aeration, organic materials, nitrogen, soil porosity and deeper penetration of precipitation.
Myth: Prairie dog burrows injure livestock.
Fact: Some horses, moving at speed, do punch through prairie dog burrows and get injured. However, cattle, walking at their normal pace, usually do not puncture prairie dog burrows or, when they do, are not injured. Prairie dog burrows go deep; livestock injuries are much more likely to be caused by ground squirrel burrows, which are close to the surface.
Myth: Prairie dogs pose a threat of plague epidemic to New Mexicans.
Fact: Plague does occur in New Mexico and prairie dogs can carry plague-bearing fleas. However, prairie dogs, unlike other native rodentia, have no immunity to plague and are themselves killed by the disease in short order. Thus, prairie dog colonies in New Mexico can be viewed as “mine canaries”, giving us a very quick alarm to the presence of plague. The outbreak can then be quickly quarantined and terminated with the appropriate flea-killing applications.
Myth: Prairie dogs are “dumb rats”.
Fact: Recent research illuminates a highly organized social structure and a complex language. P-dog vocalizations are adaptive as well, with new and distinct sounds identified in different colonies. Investigators have been surprised to find that they have been assigned individual “names” by colonies of prairie dogs.
Myth: Prairie dog colonies are a financial drain on ranchers and taxpayers.
Fact: This myth is true, but not for the obvious reasons. Public funds channeled through a variety of agencies (often with overlapping spheres of authority) are used in large-scale poisoning operations. The level of funding is remarkable and mostly unnecessary. Additionally, millions are currently being spent on restoring and re-introducing other threatened species (hawks, owls, ferrets, badgers) whose natural prey is prairie dogs. It clearly follows that a sustainable population of p-dogs is more cost-effective, to say nothing of more realistic in outcome.