An overview of Utah Prairie Dogs and the conservation efforts of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local agencies.
Utah Prairie Dog Ecology
What is a Utah prairie dog? How does it differ from other prairie dogs? These are all common questions that have simple answers. Prairie dogs are small burrowing mammals that live in family groups. These groups are made up of coteries, which consist of one male, a few females, and the juvenile offspring. All the coteries together create a town. These family groups are a matriarchal society. This means that the females are in charge. Each female has approximately 3-4 pups a year, with only half of them surviving the first year. Not only does this keep population sizes from growing, but female prairie dogs are only fertile for 5 hours on one day of the year. Prairie dogs are very social animals. They have a complicated language that allows them to communicate with each other and signal if something is out of the ordinary. They have one of the most complex languages in the animal kingdom. It has been shown that juveniles that don't learn the chirps and barks at a young age don't thrive, because then they can communicate. Prairie dog pups also love to play fight, much like human families. A few key characteristics of the Utah prairie dog include a white tail, a dark "eyebrow" marking above its eye, and fur that ranges from a cinnamon brown to a clay color. What sets the Utah prairie dog apart from the other groups of prairie dogs is it's location and the white marking on the tip of its tail. White tailed prairie dogs also hibernate in the winter, occasionally coming out to eat. In fact, Utah prairie dogs are a keystone species. This means they are play a vital role in contributing to the diversity of life around them. If they went extinct, so would the species that depend on them. They improve forage quality, diversity of plants, help conserve water, and improve the soil conditions they dig in. Prairie dogs hibernate during the winter, but will occasionally leave their burrows to forage for grass if its warm enough. These quirky animals also enjoy a good nap in the middle of the day when it gets too hot, then they will emerge in the evening to eat some more before it gets too dark.
History of Utah Prairie Dog Conservation
True to its name, the Utah prairie dog is only found in Utah. It resides in a total of 9 counties in the southwestern area of Utah. The Utah prairie dog has been listed as a federally endangered species since 1973. Even though more than 40 years have passed, the Utah prairie dog population has shown minimal recovery. It resides in a total of 9 counties in the southwestern area of Utah. Nearly 70 percent of Utah prairie dogs are found on private lands. This makes it difficult to see how the species is recovering, because the ones that live on public lands cannot be counted toward the population recovery number. Utah prairie dogs are at odds with ranchers, farmers, and developers. They tend to love the same land that we do because the soil is good for burrowing and foraging, but in Utah, that soil is hard to come by. This results in conflict between prairie dogs and people of agriculture. The biggest threats to prairie dogs are poisoning, shooting, development of land, and disease. With all four of these factors becoming increasingly common, prairie dog populations don't stand a chance of recovery without someone stepping in. Utah prairie dogs have a small reproduction rate. This is a big issue because only about half of their pups make it to adulthood. Because of this, its hard for the population to grow. Fragmentation of the groups also makes it difficult for the population to recover. Fragmentation can be caused by highways, house subdivisions, fields, or fires that split up the habitat.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation
The Endangered Species Act (AKA the ESA) was created in 1973 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to protect endangered species and come up with ways to help them recover. The ESA protects both plants and animals that are critically endangered. Sections 7 and 10 in the ESA are some of the most important to aid in prairie dog conservation because of the permits they contain. Section 7 states the importance of interagency cooperation and putting the safety of a prairie dog population first. Federal agencies are required to consult with the ESA administering services before starting a project. Doing so allows the ESA to make sure that any species on the endangered or threatened list will not be harmed in the process of the project being carried out. Section 10 of the ESA allows permits to be taken out that aid in the study and preservation efforts of the population. These permits allow a certain number of prairie dogs to be captured, relocated, and bred in order to help boost the number of the Utah prairie dog population. Doing so allows researchers to better understand the health of prairie dogs and how to better help them thrive in the wild.
If Utah Prairie Dogs are found on the property, landowners can contact the Utah Division of Wildlife for removal to take place. The division can trap and relocate the prairie dogs safely and effectively and transport them to land that is designated to them.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Conservation
In 1972, the UDWR started a translocation program for the Utah prairie dogs. This initiative allowed the movement of Utah prairie dogs from private lands to public lands. Many of the Utah prairie dogs are moved from agricultural areas where they are at risk and they are moved to a place where there is a historical occupancy. This ensures their best chance at survival and the ability to grow their population. One of the best ways to assist the recovery process is to preserve the surviving colonies. Most of these colonies occur on nonfederal land, leaving them unprotected. When colonies are found on nonfederal lands, conservation easements can be purchased by the DWR and voluntary conservation agreements are made with willing landowners. These agreements are a way to keep the prairie dogs safe. The landowners will protect and improve the land that the prairie dog colonies are found. The improvements include implementing vegetation treatments, minimizing land use, and minimize the impact of disease. These willing landowners are paid for their efforts. The Utah Prairie Dog Habitat Credit exchange is one major way that conservation can be furthered. This exchange was made in 2010 and currently has over 280 acres of Utah prairie dog land through conservation easements. The exchange will sell credits to developers when their projects overlap with prairie dog habitats.
Impact of Plague
Plague is a deadly bacterial disease that can wipe out a prairie dog colony in a matter of days. It is carried and passed on by fleas that are carriers of the disease. The death rate of the plague is 99% in a prairie dog colony. But don't worry, it is rarely passed to humans. In order to combat the deadly disease that is wiping out the endangered prairie dogs, both federal and state governments are coming up with plans. Two of these are plague dusting and administering a plague vaccine. Plague dusting is an effective way to kill fleas. One simply dusts the entrance of the prairie dog hole with an insecticide that will kill any fleas that may transmit the disease. However, it has been shown that the most effective way to immunize colonies against the plague is by administering a plague vaccine. This vaccine is administered on an annual basis by baiting the prairie dogs with a tasty peanut butter flavored treat that contains the vaccine inside of it, so when its eaten, the vaccine has entered the animals system and immunity can be built. The vaccine has no adverse effects on other small mammals that may consume it.
Plague Vaccine. (Credit: Marisa Lubeck, USGS)
Future Management and Goals
This Section of Under Construction