National Wildlife Refuge System
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A Gunnison’s prairie dog pauses in front of a wildlife drinker to survey his surroundings at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The species, native to the refuge, is getting some help in returning
A Gunnison’s prairie dog pauses in front of a wildlife drinker to survey his surroundings at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The species, native to the refuge, is getting some help in returning.
Credit: USFWS

A Comeback for Prairie Dogs

Gunnison’s prairie dogs are getting a second chance on Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. More than 70 years after the refuge’s former landowners did their best to eradicate the native mammals as pests, refuge biologists are teaming with non-profit groups and state researchers to reestablish a healthy prairie dog colony in the center of the refuge.

The move, part of the refuge's plan to conserve native species and ecosystems, provides a new home for prairie dogs displaced by development and disease.

The 600 prairie dogs to be reintroduced to the refuge during the 2010 summer come from Albuquerque colonies facing habitat loss. Refuge biologists working with the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network, will monitor the animals' long-term population dynamics and their impact on the refuge’s grassland ecosystem.

Biologist will also test them for disease before release. A major factor in the prairie dog’s decline has been the sylvatic plague, a disease the burrowing animals have little defense against. LTER biologists will closely research and monitor the animals for plague.

Prairie dogs will first be released to small man-made burrows on the refuge. After a week’s observation, the prairie dogs will be free to dig their own burrow system while researchers monitor their behavior and numbers.

"If we're going to restore biodiversity, we need to keep this population going," said Sevilleta Refuge Biologist Jon Erz. He will work with LTER researchers to study the prairie dog’s survival and reproduction rates and establish a tested relocation protocol.

Gunnison’s prairie dogs are one of five species of prairie dogs native to North America. Ranchers once routinely poisoned prairie dogs to prevent tunneling from disturbing cattle land and foraging from reducing grazing grasslands. Some still regard prairie dogs as pests. Conservationists consider the prairie dog a keystone species in the short grass prairie ecosystem. They create habitat for burrowing owls and grasshoppers, provide food for coyotes, weasels, foxes and ferrets and help aerate the soil.

Sevilleta Refuge is managed primarily as a research area and is closed to most recreational uses. Limited waterfowl and dove hunting are permitted and special tours including environmental education programs for students may be arranged by contacting the refuge.

For more information about the refuge, visit http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/newmex/sevilleta/ or call 505-864-4021.

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