American Prairie places the restoration and conservation of black-tailed prairie dogs as a top priority alongside bison restoration because of their influence on the shape and diversity of grassland ecosystems.
Prairie dog burrows are homes to many species including burrowing owls and prairie rattlesnakes, and the closely cropped grasses of prairie dog towns create sparsely vegetated areas for nesting birds and provide fresh, protein-rich growth for grazing ungulates. Prairie dogs are also a source of food for many prairie species, one of the most notable being the black-footed ferret– one of North America’s most endangered mammals, which depends exclusively on prairie dogs as prey.
Prairie dogs occupy approximately two percent of their historic range across the Great Plains. The size of individual colonies once exceeded 25,000 acres in the region and collectively they covered hundreds of thousands of acres in Northeast Montana, but populations declined significantly from government-sponsored poisoning programs in the 1930s. These declines were exacerbated by the accidental introduction of sylvatic plague to North America, which prairie dogs are highly susceptible to. Despite their recognition as a keystone species, shooting prairie dogs remains largely unregulated and unrestricted in Montana, further hampering their recovery.
Lands owned by American Prairie are home to many prairie dog colonies that support diverse wildlife, including several breeding pairs of burrowing owls. Since 2015, we have been working with Defenders of Wildlife and the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society to grow prairie dog towns on American Prairie lands. Restoration on American Prairie’s private land is aimed at boosting reproduction and speeding population growth, as well as disease mitigation. These efforts include seeding areas with a plant mixture preferred by prairie dogs, mowing perimeters of colonies to encourage expansion and control predators, and relocating animals to create new colonies. Sylvatic Plague mitigation occurs through application of insecticide dust (killing the fleas which spread the disease).
The immediate goal – driven by the urgency of potential extinction of the black-footed ferret – is to grow an existing colony complex to the point it becomes viable for black-footed ferret restoration. American Prairie, in cooperation with the CMR, offers one of the best chances to restore a prairie dog population sufficiently large enough to support a viable population of ferrets.