Prairie dogs are cute. And important.
You've probably heard that prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species. In their case, this means that their colonies create islands of habitats that benefit 150 other species. They are also a food source for many animals, including coyotes, eagles, badgers and critically endangered black-footed ferrets.
Many species, such as burrowing owls, tiger salamanders and black-footed ferrets, use prairie dog burrows as homes. Prairie dogs even help aerate and fertilize the soil, allowing a greater diversity of plants to thrive.
Black-tailed prairie dogs, the species you see along Colorado's Front Range, once numbered in the hundreds of millions – maybe over a billion – and centuries ago they were possibly the most abundant mammal in North America. Due to a variety of reasons, including habitat loss and extermination by humans, their numbers have decreased by over 95%. In the past 15 years, there has been a further 60% decrease of large prairie dog complexes.
Scientists agree that the population of prairie dogs is declining rapidly, and that it is now only at 5% of what it was little more than a century ago. So why should we care about prairie dogs? Since many species depend on them for survival, if the prairie dog becomes extinct, many other species will be threatened.
Here's another reason to protect current prairie dog populations: Because they belong to the "Rodentia" order of animals, people often assume that they reproduce often and a lot, like rats. This isn't true. In fact, prairie dogs reproduce very slowly.
Our thanks to Defenders of Wildlife, the Prairie Dog Coalition, and the Journal of Mammalogy for this information. We've just scratched the surface. If you'd like to know more, we urge you to keep digging!