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Facts About the Utah Prairie Dog

Updated on June 26, 2018
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Brian has a Masters of Education from Southern Utah University. He works as a behavior specialist & is training to be a behavior analyst.

Cute Critter or Harmful Pest?

A relative of the ground squirrel, there are only 5 species of prairie dog in the world, all of which are found in North America.
A relative of the ground squirrel, there are only 5 species of prairie dog in the world, all of which are found in North America.

An Introduction to the Utah Prairie Dog

Scientific Name: Cynomys parvidens

Summary of the Species: The Utah prairie dog is a member of the squirrel family, which are in turn are the order of rodent. The dog portion of the name prairie dog arrives from their behavior. Like dogs, they are territorial and run in sorts of packs. Unlike dogs, they are primarily herbivores for the most part (although they will eat insects as well as scavenge dead animals, including other dead prairie dogs, if the opportunity arises). They do, however, make noises that sound somewhat like barking to warn of approaching danger.

The Utah prairie dogs are the smallest member of the prairie dog family, and they have tan coats that are speckled or mottled with patches of brown, which, and black. Their coats, much like other desert-dwelling creatures, are designed to act as camouflage when they hold still.

The Utah prairie dog is one of only two species of prairie dogs that are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act. In the 1970s the population fell well below 3300. This dramatic decrease in population lead to the classification of being endangered in 1973. The species was then reclassified as threatened in 1984 when the population had grown.

The Utah prairie dogs live in colonies that are commonly referred to as towns by the locals of Southern Utah. Their society is a matriarchal based “clan” system. It is thought the Utah prairie dog is a brake off from the White-tailed prairie dogs because of their close genetic heritage. Likely what happened is that there was some sort of migration from the area where the White-tailed prairie dogs live. Typically individual species break off from others when there is a long-term isolation from the "parent species". In this case, the isolation was because of geographical features (mountains and distance) and the lack of wandering that the prairie dog as a species has. They are homebodies that enjoy close proximity to their families.

Status of Species: The Federal Government has the species listed as threatened.

Habitat: Southern Utah, specifically Wayne, Sevier, Piute, Kane, Iron, Garfield, and Beaver counties.

A Historical Issue:

Since the settling of Southern Utah the prairie dog was branded a pest and have been hunted to near extinction. Methods of trying to eradicate them have included poisoning, shooting, gassing, using other animals such as cats and dogs to hunt them, and even introduced a variety of diseases into the populations in hope of killing them off. The reason settlers considered them a past is that livestock such as sheep, cattle, and horses would often their break legs in prairie dog holes. Furthermore, early settlers would often have their plows ruined by the obstacle the prairie dog towns would make. And that doesn't even count the crops the prairie dogs would eat because they are rodents. To the settlers, it seemed as if the prairie dogs were a small plague of sorts. They did not know that the prairie dogs are attracted to areas where there is clear and soft ground. Areas like where humans build their buildings, plow fields, or graze their livestock.

The problem has changed a little over time, but not by much. The problems of certain prairie dog towns being infected with diseases due to human involvement lead to fear and very real health problems arising from animal interactions. Places, where the fields are clear for development, are quickly occupied by prairie dog towns. Due to their protected nature, the cost of moving the towns is high, and the government agencies that provide oversight on the matter add a lot of bureaucratic red tape that seems arbitrary and pointless to the locals. And there are still issues of livestock breaking legs in prairie dog holes. Consider this. Currently, 80% of known prairie dog populations are on private lands.

Recovering Population:

Of all the research I have done, only one website indicated that the population of Utah Prairie Dogs is recovering. All other sites focus on the fact that the species was on the verge of extinction in the ‘70s. The governmental website, on the other hand, clearly states that the species is not only stabilized but also growing. As of “2009, the total estimated range-wide population (including juveniles) ranged from 23,752 to 54,195 animals, with an average population of 34,279.” Additionally on June 20, 2011 a survey was completed that showed that there was no need to reclassify the species as endangered despite the urging of the environmental community to do so because of the evidence of steady population growth. Under the Endangered Species Act, the term “endangered species” means any species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The term “threatened species” means any species at risk of becoming an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

In simple terms: Endangered species are at risk of extinction now. Threatened species are likely to be at risk in the near future.

Family Snuggles

My opinion on the matter:

I find that while the desire to preserve the species is wise, but there is a lot more than the fate of a prairie dog species going on here. From every indication the growth rate is showing that the species is stable and more. The real factor here is control of land. I know people who have prairie dogs on their land that moved in after those people moved there. One such person was at risk of federal prison and fines because his dog got loose and was chasing the prairie dogs around. Environmental activists hounded him and his family while he had to spend thousands of dollars attempting to pull permits to allow him to live in peace. BLM agents were on his property on a regular basis and at all hours.
While I am in favor of preventing another species from going extinct, I find that not all the information the environmental groups are providing is adding up. Considering that the official information shows a drastic recovery why have none of the environmental sites shown this information? Why is it that it is still a federal offense for even accidentally killing a prairie dog? As I mentioned before, there is more to this than just preserving the species. I feel this is a matter of controlling land and property rights.

Possible Solutions:

Safe harbor agreements and conservation banks have been set up with local ranchers were the ranchers agree to limit the amount of grazing in areas where the prairie dogs live in exchange for money. Most of this money comes from homeowners buying into a conservation bank and so are exempt from punishment if prairie dogs are killed accidentally or while building etc. Additionally, BLM and other governmental groups have been attempting to relocate prairie dogs to protected areas and government land with limited success. Bryce Canyon National Park has a thriving colony thanks to these efforts but still, this is an exception rather than the general rule for the relocation efforts.

Perhaps another approach would be for private companies to set up ecotourism opportunities. People are fascinated with these cute creatures, and for good reason. If they can have a close look at these critters while not interfering in their lives, this would probably provide another attraction to Southern Utah and make people more aware of this unique branch of the prairie dog species.

How do you feel about the prairie dog issue?

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