Black-tailed prairie dog  Cynomys ludovicianus
ESA status: petitioned for listing

Black-tailed prairie dog photo public domain

Imagine a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs. It is somewhere on the grasslands of the Great Plains, which sweep from southern Canada, through a vast swath of the U.S., to northern Mexico. The prairie dogs, sociable animals, pop in and out of their networks of excavated tunnels, keeping watch for predators and communicating with a complex system of yips and barks. If you look closer, you will see why they are considered a keystone species in this ecosystem: the colony is rich with the diversity of species that depend on them and their burrows. Predators including the endangered black-footed ferret, the swift fox, the golden eagle, and the ferruginous hawk hunt the prairie dogs for food. Other animals use their burrows as home and shelter from the midday heat: snakes, cottontail rabbits, burrowing owls, beetles, and salamanders, to name a few. The nutritious vegetation in the colony is kept neatly trimmed, providing fertile foraging for grazers such as bison and pronghorn.

Now imagine that this colony was one of the vast prairie dog towns that existed in the 1800s, before Europeans began to settle and drastically transform the Great Plains. It might have stretched for miles, covering many thousands of acres and containing millions of prairie dogs. The extent of it would have been mind-boggling, like one of the enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that also existed at that time. And indeed, the black-tailed prairie dog seems to be traveling down the same bleak path as the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

Black-tailed prairie dogs have been poisoned, shot, plowed under, and bulldozed out of up to 99% of their historic range. Current colonies are miniscule compared to the towns of the past. Now they face the additional threat of introduced sylvatic plague, which can lead to 100% mortality in a colony. Despite their imperilment, they have no federal protection. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved new poisons for exterminating prairie dogs, which are having devastating effects on both prairie dogs and associated wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) acknowledges that enough poison was sold at a single South Dakota bait station between 2004 and 2008 to cover all occupied black-tailed prairie dog habitat in the United States, with enough left over to poison an additional million acres.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are at the heart of the American grassland. As ecosystem engineers, they bring to life our native wildlife and plant communities. To protect our rapidly disappearing grassland heritage, WildEarth Guardians has pressed for protection for this species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for a decade, but the FWS declared them "not warranted" for listing in 2009. WildEarth Guardians will not rest until this imperiled and important mammal has the protections it deserves.

photo credit: Wikimedia commons/Sylfred1977