Prairie dogs get a bad rap

As rural areas become increasingly populated, these charming rodents become victims of urban sprawl. A letter to the editor in the local paper today is titled, “Prairie dogs not good for the environment.” I beg to differ.

The black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus, is a ubiquitous rodent belonging to the squirrel family. They are common in our area, and an essential part of our ecosystem.

Prairie dogs have a complex habitat and strict social structure, living in “towns” of families that can span hundreds of acres. Tunnel systems channel rainwater to prevent erosion and runoff, and can enhance the soil by digging it up to reverse compaction caused by cattle grazing. The tunnels also provide homes to many species of animals such as Burrowing Owls and snakes. Prairie dogs have an elite social hierarchy, and designated individuals help to protect and defend the town.

I love prairie dogs. I delight in watching their antics. I have taken students on field trips to the Cathy Fromme Prairie to observe them. I watch them as I ride my horse while being mindful of where the holes are on the trail.

It seems that when development is desired, city officials think nothing of decimating a prairie dog town. One area near the foothills was wiped out with poison a couple of years ago. Guess what! The grass is back and the dogs are back. What city officials neglect to consider when wiping out a prairie dog town is that their predators, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles and other raptors, go away to find food elsewhere. Seldom do I ride my horse in local open spaces and state parks and not see eagles. In fact, one mountain park trail that we frequent is closed because golden eagles are nesting. There is a prairie dog town right there, a sort of fast food joint for the birds.

The letter in the paper today says that prairie dogs eat all the grass causing wind to blow dirt around. So what! This is nature. The author went on to say the wind-blown dirt could have caused a traffic accident. How about the driver slowing down if there are risky driving conditions?

If the prairie dogs eat too much and destroy their habitat, they will either die off or go elsewhere. The habitat will regrow. Let them be. Enjoy them for what they are, a vital part of the ecosystem, and food for wildlife.

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