Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents that live in large colonies in the grasslands of central and western North America. The five species of prairie dogs (black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Mexican and Utah) were once likely more than one billion strong, and their colonies covered roughly 100 million acres. Since the late 1800s, their numbers have been reduced by at least 95 percent, and they are now found in comparatively small and fragmented colonies that total roughly 2-3 million acres.
Why They’re Important
Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species because their colonies create islands of habitat that benefit approximately 150 other species. They are a food source for many animals, including coyotes, eagles, badgers, and the critically endangered black-footed ferret . Many species, like the black-footed ferret and tiger salamander, use their burrows as homes. Prairie dogs even help aerate and fertilize the soil, allowing a greater diversity of plants to thrive.
Humans pose the greatest threat to prairie dogs, frequently poisoning and shooting the animals and often plowing or bulldozing entire colonies for cropland or development. Many ranchers dislike the animals because they eat grass that ranchers would rather have for their livestock. Sylvatic plague—an exotic disease that entered North America in 1900—is also threatening their survival.
What Defenders Is Doing to Help Prairie Dogs
Defenders of Wildlife is working to end the destruction of prairie dog colonies on public lands, including our national grasslands across the Great Plains. We’re also working with private landowners who are fighting to save prairie dogs on their own property from state laws requiring landowners to poison the animals.