Welcome to the 4th edition of Marsh Musings. This week we will be focusing on a critter that carries a very negative stigma in the state of Kansas: the black-tailed prairie dog. Kansans’ tend to either love or hate these critters. In Kansas, especially Western Kansas, prairie dogs are known as a destructive pest.
Great numbers of farmers despise them because of the holes they dig in their fields and many will tell you how they are dangerous to their livestock. The truth is, prairie dogs are just misunderstood and carry a lot of wise tall tales with them. In all actuality, very few, if any reports, have ever been filed on injuries due to prairie dog burrows. Regardless of what people feel about them, they are great to photograph and are an important part of the Kansas prairies and ecosystems.
Prairie dogs are referred to as a keystone species, meaning that many other animals depend on either the prairie dogs for food or for the ecosystem they create. In fact, over 200 animals depend on the prairie dog! The matter of the fact is that prairie dogs are greatly decreasing in numbers. They used to highly populate the United States, with estimates as high as five billion in the early 1900s. The largest population ever recorded was a colony in Texas, which was over 250 miles long, 100 miles wide, and had over 400 million prairie dogs in it! Can you even imagine the sight of millions of prairie dogs running and yipping all over?
Many species are dying off due to the reduction of prairie dog populations, including the most endangered mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret. Black-footed ferrets are endangered because 90-95% of their diet consists of prairie dogs, and their numbers are dwindling along with the prairie dogs. I had the great fortune of assisting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s re-introduction project in Western Kansas this past spring, and Dr. Witt will be accompanying me in September to catch, vaccinate, and PIT tag ferrets as well. Make sure to keep an eye out for a column on our ferret adventure later this fall.
Many people talk about shooting prairie dogs, but Dr. Witt and I shoot prairie dogs in a different way. Prairie dogs have many interesting behaviors and ways of communicating, creating many fantastic photo ops. Unfortunately, colonies are getting harder and harder to find. Most of the populations in Cheyenne Bottoms were lost to the high water levels during the 2007 flood, and only a few small populations actually remain in the basin of the Bottoms; however, there are a number of nice size colonies along the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway. Dr. Witt and I have been able to get some great shots of the little critters running and playing around their burrows. Perhaps one of the best opportunities to get up close pictures of these animals is at the Village Cinema parking lot in Great Bend. T
These little guys are very acclimated to humans and allow for an up close experience. They are also well fed and you will often find people feeding them Cheetos and other very "healthy" foods for prairie dogs. While I do not endorse the feeding of such foods, I do recommend taking your family out to see one of the most entertaining and smart animals in all of Kansas.
So whether you come out to the KWEC and see our prairie dogs "Digger" and "Nitro" or you take a relaxing jaunt on the Scenic Byway, grab your camera and get some pictures of some of the cutest and most friendly critters in all of Kansas. See you next time!
Eric Giesing is an educator/wildlife biologist at the KWEC and Dr. Dan Witt is a semi-retired local doctor and wildlife photographer.