Gunnison's prairie dog Cynomys gunnisoni
ESA status: candidate for listing
Drama at the Gunnison’s prairie dog colony: one of the prairie dogs on watch spots a coyote approaching. She lets out a short, sharp bark to tell the other prairie dogs what is headed their way and how fast it is approaching (learn more about prairie dog communication in this educational video). The others respond by instantly bolting into the complex series of burrows they call home; the coyote lopes past the suddenly empty stretch of prairie in search of easier prey.
Gunnison’s prairie dogs live in family groups called clans, organized into colonies with their neighbors. Their social structure and complex series of calls allows them to warn each other of predators, such as the coyote, badger, golden eagle, and ferruginous hawk, that patrol their range in the ‘‘Four Corners’’ region of northern Arizona, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. They are considered a “keystone species” because of the important role they play in their grassland habitat: as well as (unwillingly) providing meals for predators including the endangered black-footed ferret, they lend homes in their burrows to a host of other animals including snakes, cottontail rabbits, burrowing owls, beetles, and salamanders, to name a few. The nutritious vegetation in their colonies is kept neatly trimmed, providing fertile foraging for grazers such as bison and pronghorn.
But this intelligent, social, and important animal is almost gone from its former range. In 1916, they protected colonies across 24 million acres of the Great Plains – now they occupy less than 500,000 acres, a decline of almost 98%. Mass extermination efforts, federally orchestrated on behalf of the livestock industry, began their decline. Currently they are under siege from introduced sylvatic plague, rampant oil and gas drilling, shooting, poisoning, urban sprawl, and other perils.
Having won a string of court cases on its behalf, WildEarth Guardians is working hard to preserve this species across its whole range, fighting political interference and misuse of the scientific process. We don’t want the Gunnison’s prairie dogs’ call for “human” to translate into “enemy.”
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photo credit: Andrew Hollander/Flickr