The other day we were asked to assist a researcher out at the prairie dog re-introduction plots. Before you read this whole thing searching for adorable photos of prairie dogs let us say that they were already down for the winter. To appease you however we did pilfer this adorable shot.
Cute as they are, prairie dogs have taken on a not-so-great reputation. We humans have taken over their grasslands, turned them into farmlands and decided that the area was better off without them interfering. As a result, the Gunnison Prairie Dog population has dropped by 98-99% across its historic range and less than 1 percent of historic prairie dog towns remain.
Our task on this outing (besides admiring all of the new plants and critters) was to assist the researcher in collecting vegetation samples to see the impact the prairie dogs were having on the area. As the word impact is most typically taken in a negative context, we should interject here with a fact about prairie dogs: They are a keystone grassland species that historically inhabited this area and re-establishing a colony on the refuge is an important step towards restoring the natural biological diversity of the refuge grasslands.
This is a layout of the plots on our refuge. They are in a beautiful location at the base of the Los Pinos Mountains. Yellow is a treatment (or prairie dogs are placed here) plot and red is a control (no prairie dogs introduced here) plot. On day one Nicole went out to Treatment Plot B and on day two Darlene assisted the researcher in Control Plot A.
Why so important? Here’s a great bit of information from the Conserve Nature organization’s website. “If this keystone species becomes extinct, it would mean the extinction of many other forms of life as well. Over 200 other species have been observed living on or near prairie dog colonies. These colonies contribute to the ecosystem by providing burrows for other animals such as burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, and snakes; providing a food source for such species as badgers, black-footed ferrets, coyotes, and many birds of prey; and their burrowing churns the soil to enable the earth to better sustain plant life. Without prairie dogs present, many aspects of the prairie life would change or disappear.”
How about this great analogy from the Great Plains Restoration Council: “Over 160 native birds and animals depend for food and shelter upon the rich ecosystem prairie dogs create, like ocean fish depend on coral reefs. Prairie dog colonies are the coral reefs of the sea of grass.”
Prairie dog numbers have decreased by 95% over the last 150 years. As a keystone species, this means that the grassland ecosystems are at risk for (or have already experienced) a dramatic shift or even complete collapse as this species declines.
Entrance / exit to one of the artificial burrows created to provide relocated prairie dogs a safe place to start their new life on the refuge. Since the Gunnison’s prairie dog is not a protected species, groups like Albuquerque’s Prairie Dog Pals are vital to their survival via capture and re-location programs.
Suppose we should get back to what we were doing out here.
Nancy would lay down this sample size grid (probably 1/1000
of the size of the actual plot) and identify and count the
amounts of the grasses and plants that fell within the frame.
Our job would then be to collect three samples of each one and
put them in properly labeled bags for further investigation back
at the lab.
Since Nicole worked a treatment plot and Darlene worked a control plot our compared memories indicated a definite difference in not only the variety of grasses and plants found in each location but also the proliferation or lack there of.
The name reminds us of a short story... about a small dog. Our maintenance guy was out working in the wetlands area when he observed a lost and hungry dog. He caught it, tied it to a fence post and then called for a pick up. Nicole and Renee headed out with a dog crate and thick gloves and were greeted by....
Seriously! No gloves or crate needed. She slept in Nicole’s
arms all the way back to the refuge where Jon pulled out a
prairie dog microchip scanner. She was chipped so we
were able to reunite Theresita with her very happy owners.
And now back to the grasslands... for a wrap-up.
Now that we think about it, there really isn’t much else to say.
Oh, you are probably still wondering what prairie dogs eat? Mostly grasses and forbs.
You know what else? Prairie dog family members greet each other by kissing.
How cute is that!?