Prairie dogs are "barking" squirrels, not dogs, and are among our most "watchable" wildlife. Three species occur in Colorado: the black-tailed prairie dog
; the white-tailed prairie dog and Gunnison's prairie dog. Prairie dogs are small game species in Colorado.
Smaller than a marmot, but obviously larger than any other short-tailed ground squirrel, prairie dogs are distinctive rodents. To identify species, common names "tell the tale:" black-tails have black tails, white-tails white and Gunnisons gray. Prairie dogs are 16 to 20 inches long and when fattened in fall may weigh two pounds. Prairie dogs are poisoned, shot and harassed by some landowners, but often the best control strategy is irrigation and improved grazing rotation. Predators include badgers, coyotes, hawks, eagles and black-footed ferrets.
Range: The black-tailed prairie dog occurs on the grasslands of the eastern plains; the white-tailed prairie dog in shrub-lands of North Park, the Wyoming Basin and the lower Colorado and Gunnison valleys; and Gunnison’s prairie dog in the San Luis Valley, South Park and areas to the south and west.
Habitat: Burrows are up to seven feet deep and 16 feet long with one or more volcano-shaped entrances that shed water and catch wind for ventilation. The black-tail is the most colonial prairie dog; some towns cover several hundred acres. In addition to noisy territorial barking, they make alarms and "all-clear" calls, and "kissing" seems to help them recognize each other. Vegetation around the burrow is clipped, apparently to allow better visibility of potential predators.
Diet: Prairie dogs eat grasses and other vegetation, selecting succulent, actively growing plants. Between grazing and clipping, they may denude an area of vegetation. Often they are a symptom rather than a cause of rangeland damage, however. Overgrazing by livestock creates ideal conditions for prairie dogs, which evolved alongside migratory herds of bison, not inside barbed wire fences!
Reproduction: White-tailed and Gunnison’s prairie dogs are deep hibernators, but black-tails in Colorado simply go dormant in bitter winter weather, arousing to feed in warm spells. Prairie dogs mate in early spring and have two to ten pups after a gestation period of four to five weeks.
By David M. Armstrong
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Environmental Studies Program, University Museum of Natural History
University of Colorado-Bouldermausmann@aol.com