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Prairie Dogs

Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) have significant impacts on the grasslands that they inhabit and their presence provides prey and landscape structure necessary for the presence of associated species, such as burrowing owls. Because of these far-reaching effects, prairie dogs are often considered “keystone” species. Today, City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks seeks to conserve prairie dogs on up to 3,100 acres of open space lands designated as Grassland Preserves, Multiple Objective Areas or Prairie Dog Conservation Areas.

The black-tailed prairie dog is a medium-sized, diurnal, colonial ground squirrel inhabiting subterranean burrows in suitable grassland habitat. The black-tailed prairie dog historically inhabited much of the central plains but through loss of habitat and direct extermination, populations have been significantly reduced. Black-tailed prairie dogs across most of Open Space and Mountain Parks’ (OSMP) grassland habitats and in other areas, including irrigated agricultural lands. Current wildlife monitoring has indicated that some OSMP irrigated agricultural lands have the highest levels of prairie dog occupation since the department began mapping prairie dog colonies in 1996.

Other key facts about prairie dogs from Colorado Parks and Wildlife

The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, historically inhabits the eastern third of Colorado. According to one estimate, black-tailed prairie dogs once covered seven million acres in Colorado.

  • The decline of black-tailed prairie dog populations is related to several factors, including:
    • Sylvatic plague
    • Direct loss of habitat to urban/suburban development
    • Habitat fragmentation
    • Conversion of habitat to agricultural uses
    • Systematic poisoning
    • Recreational shooting
    • Inadequate regulatory mechanism
  • Black-tailed prairie dogs are highly social animals. They live in family groups, or coteries, which typically consist of a breeding adult male, one to four breeding adult females and their offspring younger than two years of age. With the emergence of young, coteries can number up to 40 individuals.
  • The primary benefit of this colonial lifestyle is protection from predators: black-tailed prairie dogs have an elaborate communication system to warn others of the presence of danger, including both auditory and visual cues.

Prairie dogs and epizootic sylvatic plague

Black-tailed and other species of prairie dogs are especially susceptible to the disease and periodic episodes of high levels of infection (epizootics) are seen across large parts of the species’ ranges. In Boulder County, widespread epizootics that result in extensive prairie dog mortality occur cyclically (in the past, every 7-11 years), but isolated outbreaks can occur at any time. Plague plays a role in defining the spatial scale and arrangement of prairie dogs occupation on OSMP land and epizootic die-offs have resulted in significant reductions in populations in some areas. Due to the highly unpredictable nature of outbreaks, and shifting surrounding land uses, the impact posed by plague is uncertain.

According to Boulder County Public Health: The bacteria is transmitted to people through a flea bite and direct contact with infected animals. Fleas generally do not infect other animals unless their natural host (animal) is no longer available. Domestic cats and dogs can contract plague by catching and eating infected rodents and rabbits or by being bitten by infected fleas. They can then carry infected fleas home to their owners or, especially with cats, serve as a direct source of infection. Learn more