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Dog Town

The world’s largest prairie dog colony once covered a large swath of Texas.

By Eva Frederick

An intrepid cowboy riding across the Texas Panhandle in the early 1900s might have encountered a town nearly 200 times the size of Houston, sprawling over 25,000 square miles of short-grass prairie. Its 400 million residents were short and brown- haired, and kissed each other on the face by way of greeting. They chattered together until the sun sank below the horizon, and ran around town surprisingly fast, given their short legs and round pot bellies.

The residents were black-tailed prairie dogs, and this particular town was documented and described by Vernon Bailey, an explorer and naturalist working for the United States Biological Survey around the turn of the 20th century. According to Bailey, the town stretched 250 miles north from San Angelo to Clarendon, and was about 100 miles wide, making it the largest recorded prairie dog town.

family

Prairie dogs, a type of squirrel, are very social animals and keystone species of the Plains.

From the number of prairie dogs on this swath of the state (about 400 million), Bailey estimated that Texas was home to around 800 million of the mammals — a population that could eat as much grass in a day as 3.1 million cattle. Despite their voracious appetites and holes (often a nuisance), Bailey seemed to like the little guys, describing them as clean and good-natured, prone to rising early for breakfast and then disappearing into their burrows with a “twinkle of the tail.”

Renowned Texas historian J. Frank Dobie also had a soft spot for prairie dogs. When he rode among dog towns on his adventures, he took great pleasure in hearing their vocalizations and watching their antics.

“They were good company,” Dobie wrote in his book, A Vaquero of the Brush Country. “We listened to their chatter along the trail; we talked back to them ... in the years afterwards, I was to
live much among prairie dogs, but I have never wearied of their company.”

Although Dobie was known to take the occasional pot-shot at a prairie dog, the little creatures were never considered game animals. Dobie suggested this was by virtue of the erroneous name: Prairie dogs are not dogs at all, but rather a type of squirrel. Their meat is delicious, but just try to sell someone the meat of an animal bearing the name “dog.” Even if it looks and tastes like squirrel, the name is bad advertising.

Bailey’s stagecoach driver said it best: “If them things was called by their right name there would not be one left in this country,” he said. “They are just as good as squirrel, and I don’t believe they are any relation to dogs.” Prairie dogs may never have been hunted as game, but they still faced extermination at the hands of frustrated ranchers. It took only one inconveniently located prairie dog hole to maim a horse for life, and a dog town is a veritable minefield for a herd of cattle. Over the past hundred years, ranchers have poisoned prairie dogs, shot them with rifles, drowned them, buried them and even vacuumed them up out of the ground.

The creatures are also plagued by diseases such as, well, the plague. The bacteria that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, thrives in prairie dog fleas.

Due to these factors, prairie dog towns across Texas have been reduced from more than 16 million acres to fewer than 150,000 acres, and their population has decreased by more than 99 percent: now, fewer than 8 million prairie dogs remain in the state. That 25,000-square- mile town is now fragmented and separated by urbanization and land development.

Despite the long-term decline, the prairie dog population in Texas is relatively stable, says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Russell Martin. According to Martin, prairie dogs are in no danger of disappearing as a species — but because of their importance to the prairie ecosystem, it is important that researchers keep an eye on their populations.

prairie dog

"Prairie dogs are a keystone species, so when they are present there are other species that are present that wouldn’t be present otherwise,” Martin says. “For example, if you have prairie dogs, then you typically have burrowing owls present on the landscape as well, but if you get rid of prairie dogs, then the burrowing owls typically disappear once the burrows disappear.”

Other species depend on prairie dogs too; kit foxes, swift foxes and the endangered black-footed ferret all use prairie dog holes as homes, and for species such as hawks and rattlesnakes, prairie dogs are an important source of nutrition.

In the 1990s, several organizations filed a petition to get the black-tailed prairie dog federally listed as threatened. The petition did not have the desired effect, and prairie dogs remain unlisted. But the effort did set in motion a range-wide effort to learn more about the chunky little rodents that hold such an important place in grassland ecosystems.

This responsibility fell to Bill Van Pelt, who works as the grassland coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA. Van Pelt helped put together a multistate strategy to assess the current state of the black-tailed prairie dog across its range in the continental U.S., and work with landowners, state governments and other organizations to help protect the species. The plan required individual states in the agreement to monitor their prairie dog numbers and coordinate reintroduction efforts as necessary.

Nearly 20 years after the initial plan was drafted, Van Pelt is still keeping a close eye on black-tailed prairie dogs, and biologists from every state continue to conduct on-the-ground surveys to check in on their prairie dog populations. In 2014, WAFWA contracted with Western Ecosystems Technology Inc., a Wyoming-based wildlife consulting company, to try a different way of assessing prairie dog colony area: satellite imaging.

prairie dog eating

The researchers used software to analyze satellite photos and calculate the size of prairie dog towns across the Plains. Van Pelt says he hopes this can be a lower-cost method to assess the state of the species. Overall, Van Pelt says WAFWA’s prairie dog conservation efforts are part of a bigger picture.

“In general, what WAFWA did in the mid-2000s is move toward an ecosystem-based approach instead of trying to do just prairie dogs or just ferrets,” he says. “All these things are interrelated. Moving towards a habitat conservation approach just makes sense, and it can be done in such a way that it doesn’t impinge upon economic growth and development in the counties and the historical land uses.”

One barrier to prairie dog conservation is the public’s varying attitudes toward the creatures.

“Prairie dogs are very polarizing,” Martin says. “Some people think they are super-cute and cuddly and some of the most amazing little critters in the world, and then other people just despise them and think they are the scourge of the earth and every last one of them needs to be eradicated. And truthfully, in my experience a lot of that has to do with how those people were raised and how they were taught to perceive prairie dogs.”

According to Martin, people who aren’t fans of prairie dogs often grow up hearing nothing but the detrimental effects that prairie dog colonies might cause. And while there are recorded examples of these behaviors, Martin said it is important for ranchers to also consider the positive effects of the animals along with the negatives.

“We are not going to change everybody’s opinion on prairie dogs,” he says. “I know there are a lot of people out there whose opinions on them are set and there is nothing we can do about it and that’s fine, but I do think we still have to educate the folks that are willing to listen on what the prairie dog’s purpose is, and try to help them understand that they don’t need to be on every square inch of every ranch eating every blade of grass, but their presence on the landscape does have a purpose and they are important to the system.”

For more information about the life history of prairie dogs, visit tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/prairie/.

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