Saving The Prairie is Saving Ourselves


saving 2002-03 111Statistics speak for themselves: prairie dog habitat of the great western plains has been reduced to approximately one percent of its historical range. Prairie dogs once dominated the short and mixed grass prairies of the Great Plains, occupying as much as 100-250 million acres. Today, they occupy a mere fraction of that, and are struggling to survive. In 1900,it is estimated that there were only 20 wild buffalo roaming the American plains where once there were over 60 million. Gone forever are the plains wolf, plains grizzly, Audubon's bighorn sheep and the Eskimo curlew. Many consider that the Great Plains are more endangered than the rain forests of central America. To survive, the Great Plains need prairie dogs.

The nationwide demise of prairie dogs, the keepers of the prairie, is well documented. The factors that have contributed to this demise are habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, systematic poisoning, sylvatic plague, and recreational shooting. Of the five species of prairie dogs, the Mexican prairie dog is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act; the Utah prairie dog is listed as a threatened species; the black-tailed prairie dog is a candidate for listing as a threatened species; and Gunnison's prairie dogs are listed as warranted for listing in a portion of their habitat.

While it may appear at first glance that prairie dogs are abundant in northern Arizona, the local population is a fraction of the historical population. The colonies that have survived are largely isolated and threatened by development and plague. Isolated colonies do not have the genetic diversity necessary for longterm survival.

In the year 2001 alone, about 85% of the prairie dogs remaining in northern Arizona were lost to the outbreak of plague and destruction of habitat. (Arizona Daily Sun - Outdoors: "Prairie Dogs Need Help Fast," July 13, 2001. Wagner, David M.: "Current Status and Habitat Use of Gunnison's Prairie Dogs in Arizona," Northern Arizona University Doctoral Dissertation, May 2002.)

The widespread decrease in prairie dogs has far reaching consequences. Prairie dogs are known as a "keystone" species because they support over one hundred seventy other associated species. (Arizona Wildlife Views, "Watchable Wildlife: Prairie Dogs and Short-grass Prairie Ecosystems," Arizona Game and Fish Department, May 1998.) Endangered black-footed ferrets are dependent upon the prairie dog as the source of 90% of their diet. Pronghorn, coyotes, badgers, bison, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, swift foxes, horned larks, rabbits, deer mice, grasshopper mice and many other species benefit from the presence of prairie dogs. ("Conserving Prairie Dog Ecosystems on the Northern Plains, " The Predator Project; and Vanpelt, William E.: "A Tale of Two Dogs," Arizona Wildlife Views, Arizona Game and Fish Department, November-December 2000.)

Native vegetation is enhanced by the presence of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs clip the vegetation around their burrows, more nitrogen is absorbed by the plants. Additionally, diversity of plants may be increased due to the digging that disturbs the soil in prairie dog colonies. (Aschwanden, Christie: "Learning to Live with Prairie Dogs," National Wildlife, April-May 2001. Hygnstrom, Scott E. and Virchow, Dallas R.: "Prairie Dogs and the Prairie Ecosystem," University of Nebraska, 2002.)

The availability of groundwater is beneficially affected by the presence of healthy prairie dog colonies. In 1996, an environmental engineer documented the process whereby a healthy prairie dog colony facilitates the absorption and percolation of groundwater, feeding a region's streams and rivers. (Outwater, Alice: Water: A Natural History, 1996, Perseus Books Group.) The Navajo have ancient myths connecting the prairie dog with ample water, which scientific experimentation has now substantiated. (Toelken, Barre: "Prairie Dogs Cry for Rain.") It seems that the prairie ecosystem works as a whole, with myriad relationships operating in an intricate balance. "Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think." Understanding this observation of Frank Egle should caution us against species eradication.

Destroying the prairie dogs that keep the prairie has eliminated many species of animals and pushed others to the brink of extermination. Destroying prairie dogs has damaged the diversity and health of prairie plants. Destroying prairie dogs has harmed the availability of groundwater. We are losing the opportunity for recreational wildlife observation, and the opportunity to see a living, unique ecosystem. We are losing the opportunity to learn from the intricate connections of the species who make their homes on the prairie. We are harming beauty and balance when we harm the prairie. We trample the human spirit when we trample the spirit of creatures who share our earth. To save the prairie is to save ourselves.