Study: Urban prairie dogs at risk

Argen Duncan

After studying black-tailed prairie dogs within the city of Clovis and around rural Roosevelt and Curry counties, Eastern New Mexico University researchers concluded that those in the city spend less time foraging for food, which could hurt their chances of survival.

As an ENMU undergraduate, Jenny Ramirez compared the behavior of rural and urban-dwelling black-tailed prairie dogs under the guidance of then-Assistant Professor of Biology Greg Keller. The research was published in the June issue of The Southwestern Naturalist journal.

“It sounds fairly simple, but it’s a study that’s never been done before,” Keller said.

Ramirez now works as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Las Vegas, Nev. Keller has become an associate professor of conservation biology at Gordon College in Massachusetts.

Farmers, ranchers and groundskeepers consider prairie dogs pests, but, according to a news release from the Southwestern Association of Naturalists, many other animals depend on them as a food source and they contribute to soil and ground health.

“I think they’re a really important species on the prairie, and I’d like to see them succeed as a species,” Ramirez said.

In the fall of 2006 and in the spring of 2007, Ramirez observed prairie dogs at 12 colonies, rural and urban.

When she went out, Ramirez said, she would select a colony and an individual at random and use a voice recorder to note everything that prairie dog did in a five-minute period.

Urban prairie dogs spent about 20 percent more time watching for predators compared to the rural rodents, Keller said. While rural prairie dogs spent 60 percent to 70 percent of their time looking for food, he said, their urban counterparts spent 30 percent to 40 percent of their time on that activity.

“If they’re spending more time watching out for predators, they’re eating less,” Keller said. “They might be less healthy and less likely to survive.”

Eating less could also mean the prairie dogs would produce fewer offspring because of having less energy to care for them, he said.

According to the news release, the researchers suggested that the difference in behavior might come from urban prairie dogs being disrupted by people and having to watch for animals associated with humans, such as cats and dogs.

Keller said the prairie dog research could be extrapolated to apply to other geographic regions and predict the effect of humans on other animals.

As an outcome of the research, Keller said he’d like prairie dogs to get more appreciation, but since most people don’t like them, he mainly wanted to see more effort to lessen the negative impact of humans on other species in general.

Ramirez said she would like her research to bring to light the threats prairie dogs face and be considered in the issue of whether to list the species as threatened or endangered.