Denver’s Street-Smart Prairie Dogs

Researchers explore why members of one species are thriving in urban areas while rural populations dwindle

A family of black-tailed prairie dogs practices their vigilance from their colony in Highlands Ranch. (Morgan E. Heim)

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Part of the reason they are thriving is that, in a city, they can spend more time chowing down and less time watching for predators. Urban prairie dogs deal with fewer coyotes and hawks than their rural counterparts, Magle said. They are generalists, munching away on whatever plants grow around their colony. And Magle observed that the city prairie dogs have some street-smarts. They climb shrubs and small trees to grub on leaves, and even swim—behaviors that were previously unknown for black-tailed prairie dogs.

Magle wondered whether day-to-day interactions with humans might make prairie dogs take kindly to people. He tried, a lot, to see if they’d get used to him. The typical response of a prairie dog colony to a suspicious stranger is for a few sentinels to send out a series of alarm barks, signaling the others to dive for cover. Instead of getting comfortable with Magle, or anyone else helping with the study, the prairie dogs skipped the barking and went straight to the run-for-cover phase. Not even bribery seems to work.

Magle recalls one woman who repeatedly stopped near the same colony at the same time of day and tossed a bag of mixed salad out her car window. “I thought that was such a strange human behavior,” says Magle. Sure, the prairie dogs weren’t ones to turn down a free meal, and they would eventually eat the greens, but they never came to anticipate her arrival or hang out when she was around, he says. “They’re not like squirrels.”

These interactions highlight the conflicted nature of the human-prairie dog relationship. People seem to think of prairie dogs as either a beloved example of backyard nature or a plague-ridden, land-destroying blight. Prairie dogs have earned the unsavory reputation from their tendency to chew down grass and create dusty, pock-marked landscapes in pastures, cropland and backyards. Prairie dog colonies do sometimes suffer plague outbreaks, and fears of the illness stem from the potential for plague-infected fleas to hitch a ride on prairie dogs and jump to people. Many mammals, though, from mouse to housecat, could pass on the fleas, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 10 to 20 people a year nationwide get the plague, and fatalities are rare.

For those worried that contact with urban prairie dogs will transmit plague, Magle has some encouraging news. In five years of field research, not once did he encounter a plague outbreak in his prairie dogs. The urban colonies' isolation helps prevent the spread of the disease because they tend not to catch it from their rural cousins or even other urban colonies, says Magle. That’s not to suggest anyone start cuddling with the animals anytime soon.

Regardless, mention prairie dogs to a Westerner, and you’ll either spark a debate about which gun is best to shoot them with or incite pleas to protect them. Throughout his study, Magle fended off people who thought he was killing the prairie dogs and those who were upset because he wasn’t.

Magle’s research inspired conservation social scientists Tara Teel and Brad Milley, both at Colorado State University at the time, to survey people’s opinions about living with prairie dogs. Almost 20 percent of people surveyed in the area south of Denver just plain wanted prairie dogs dead. About 40 percent wanted them protected, and another 40 percent were okay with lethal control if the prairie dogs raised the risk of plague or property damage. “People’s reactions to prairie dog management are often values-based and emotional,” says Teel. “But we need to better understand what the public thinks about these issues and how to anticipate and address conflict.”

Listing black-tailed prairie dogs under the Endangered Species Act would create unprecedented challenges. Imagine being told you can’t develop an empty inner-city lot because prairie dogs live there, or being a wildlife manager tasked with keeping an eye on daily interactions between wildlife and people in a metropolitan area like Denver, or worrying about what’ll happen if you run over a prairie dog on the way to the grocery store. Things like the Safe Harbor Agreement—an arrangement with the federal government that rewards private land owners for fostering recovery of endangered species on their land—could help, but wouldn’t be a complete answer. People need to consider the difficulties that would come with listing, says Magle. “It would be different from the usual thinking of setting up nature preserves.”

But Magle tries to look at the positive side. Urban prairie dogs offer residents nature education within city limits. If protected, prairie dogs could help preserve pockets of prairie even as sprawl overtakes many areas in the West. And these islands of habitat could act as refuges from the plague, keeping some prairie dogs alive if an outbreak strikes rural populations.

Crooks and I walk through another colony in south Denver. This one is bordered by Interstate 225, a strip of gas stations and an apartment complex advertising immediate move-ins. The prairie dogs live in a ditch full of invasive weeds. But this colony is being protected from future development as a natural area managed by the Denver Water Board. With each step we take, a prairie dog announces our presence with its metronomic yap and at least a dozen others send suspicious sidelong stares from the safety of their burrows. I feel silly, like I need to apologize for interrupting their day. “It’s kind of crazy, huh?” says Crooks. “It’s also kind of encouraging that prairie dogs can exist in these highly urbanized areas. We have to savor small victories.”


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