Making Room for Prairie Dogs

These rodents are cute— if you’re not a suburban homeowner watching your grass disappear. Millions live on the prairies, yet the rascals are in trouble

Squirting soapy water down prairie dog holes and scooping up the animals as they emerge is just another weekend's work for Paula Martin. Trying to save these prairie dwellers, she relocates them from land where they are unwanted, because small as they are, these rodents loom large in controversy.

Despite declining numbers, prairie dogs are an official pest in some Western states. Among their detractors, ranchers have long despised the animals, believing (erroneously, according to some new research) that they deprive cattle of forage. Where poisoning of millions of acres by local and federal governments has not eradicated the prairie dog, development has helped: today, prairie dogs have been ousted from at least 98 percent of their former habitat.

Biologists and others say that the resulting smaller, more fragmented prairie dog towns leave the animals vulnerable to disease and natural catastrophes. That vulnerability threatens more than 170 species that depend on prairie dog habitat, including hawks, eagles, foxes and ferrets — possibly leading to an "ecological train wreck" on the prairie.

Some protection efforts are already in place: in prime prairie dog habitat in the Front Range in Colorado, for instance, the cities of Boulder and Fort Collins have set aside thousands of acres for prairie dog colonies. And as the animals continue to be pushed off land, advocates like Paula Martin go on with their work, saving one prairie dog at a time.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.