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Prairie Dog Paradise

Once extirpated in large numbers from the Texas Plains, the often-maligned prairie dog has found an unlikely new home.

From the highway, the field looks like any other piece of Rolling Plains grassland. Thick stands of sideoats grama sway heavy with seed while, around the margins of the field, mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus threaten to encroach. The only giveaway that this spot isn’t the same as the surrounding countryside is the big green sign that proclaims the spot as the future home of the Rolling Plains Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Research Project.

The venture is a joint effort of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the Childress High School Agriscience Department. The project’s aim is to convert a 20-acre parcel of land (located two miles north of Childress on Highway 83) from an old hay field to a mixed grass prairie and then reintroduce the prairie dog back into the plains ecosystem.

“The project is one that’s involved the students, the school’s administration and the whole community,” says Childress High School Agriscience teacher and project leader Russell Graves. “The most challenging part of the project so far has been converting the field from one that’s been covered in problem plants like field bindweed to a prairie that mimics what this part of Texas might have once looked like.” With timely rains and a couple of mild growing seasons behind them, Graves reports that the restoration progress is ahead of schedule.

“I think the field is shaping up well enough where we can start to relocate prairie dogs to the land late this summer,” Graves says. “Once established, the new town gives us a permanent place to conduct long-term prairie dog research.”

The project complements the award-winning prairie dog research conducted as part of the high school’s agriscience curriculum. Initiated in 1999, their prairie dog research seeks to monitor the impact of black-tailed prairie dog colonization on Rolling Plains rangelands — especially on lands where cattle and the controversial rodents coexist. Graves explains that much of what the student’s discover from the data that’s collected each spring is surprising.

“The five years of data we’ve collected seems to indicate that the prairie dog’s impact on rangelands isn’t as bad as is generally reported anecdotally,” Graves says. “It appears that their impact on rangelands overall is neutral.” Graves adds that his students monitor the soil fertility, forage quality and water infiltration rate of an existing local prairie dog town and compare their results to adjacent land where the prairie dogs haven’t colonized.

“This is a model project because it identified a piece of land that could be restored to native condition and protected it through acquisition with funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Foundation,” says Dick Davis, director of the Texas and Oklahoma office of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation. “The restoration efforts have been accomplished with labor and management provided by the next generation of stewards who happen to be students within the Childress Independent School District.”

Childress Independent School District Superintendent John Wilson also sees the relocation effort as a positive move, despite the prairie dog’s dubious reputation in cattle country. “The prairie dog project is a perfect example of multidisciplinary curriculum,” Wilson says. “Students must use science, math, writing and history in their research and presentations. They also get to have real-world application of academics, fulfilling our mission to prepare students for higher education or the job market.”

For more information on Childress High School’s prairie dog research, check out www.childressisd.net/wildlife.

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