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Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
Contact Information
  • Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
  • 333 Broadway SE. Suite 115
  • Albuquerque, NM 87102-3497
  • 505-724-3660
  • 505-724-3688 (fax)
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Management of Prairie Dog Colonies for Grassland Sustainability

Project Title

Management of Prairie Dog Colonies for Grassland Sustainability


Prairie dogs are an important component of Americaís grasslands. Habitat loss, introduced disease, and eradication programs have caused population declines in all 5 species of prairie dogs. Management for the persistence of prairie dog colonies has been hindered by lack of knowledge regarding the mechanisms for colony expansion and dieback and incapacity to accurately assess colony size. In addition, we have little understanding of how plague (Yersinia pestis), a major source of prairie dog mortality, is maintained in the natural environment and ultimately transmitted to prairie dogs. Successful grassland management must include measures to preserve prairie dog populations in order to preserve the plant and animal communities that depend upon these keystone species.

Prairie dog population densities can fluctuate widely in accordance with local environmental conditions. Effective management of prairie dogs requires accurate estimates of population density to estimate range-wide abundance and for determining threats to species persistence. Although much prairie dog habitat has been converted to agriculture and suburbs, conflict between prairie dog colonies and humans could be reduced through management interventions to control colony expansion. In addition, we need information regarding the mechanisms of plague transmission to prairie dog towns so that we can assess the likelihood of prairie dog plague outbreaks and reduce the impact of such outbreaks on prairie dogs, the animals with which they associate, and grassland ecosystems overall.

Processing a prairie dog (blood and flea collections)
Processing a prairie dog (blood and flea collections) as part of a project that examined the relationship between plague, fleas and prairie dogs at three sites in NM

Researchers and collaborators at the Albuquerque Lab have developed a novel approach to estimating density of prairie dogs within diverse ecoregions. This method provides a more accurate estimate of prairie dog populations than previously available. We also found that fire and mowing were effective treatments for manipulating colony expansion. Researchers also explored the role of fleas, an important element of the plague lifecycle, in initiating and perpetuating plague outbreaks. Recent work on the flea populations of Gunnisonís and associated small mammal show changes within these vector communities may be predictive of plague outbreaks in prairie dog towns. Further, human related land disturbance appears to have a strong influence on the dynamics of flea communities such that human land conversion represents a negative impact not only for prairie dog populations but also leads to an increase in the likelihood of flea borne disease transmission.

Gunnisonís prairie dog trapped on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Preserve, NM
Gunnisonís prairie dog trapped on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Preserve, NM

Accurate estimates of population size will allow managers to make informed decisions regarding prairie dog management. Effective control of the expansion of prairie dog colonies may lead to more reintroductions of prairie dogs and restoration of grassland habitats. Information gathered on prairie dog plague outbreaks can help identify risk factors for plague transmission in human and other animal communities and increase the success of prevention programs. Each of these studies aids decision making processes relating to relocation or restoration efforts.

Selected Publications

GSD Principal Investigators

Ford, Paulette    Research Ecologist    505-724-3670
Friggens, Megan MacKellar    Research Ecologist    505-724-3679

Cooperators and Sponsors

Center for Disease Control (Ft Collins)
Jornada Experimental Range (USDA- ARS)
Middle Rio Grande Ecosystem management Unit (RMRS)
National Science Foundation
New Mexico State University
Northern Arizona University
Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge and Long Term Ecological Research Site
Turner Endangered Species Fund
University of New Mexico
Valles Caldera National Preserve

Prairie dog taking in the view
Gunnisonís prairie dog taking in the view at Valle Grande in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM