Clayton

That was the name of the black tailed prairie dog that I worked with for years in my museum job.  She passed away a few years ago at a good old age, but I still miss her.  She was a bit pudgy even by prairie dog standards, but she was a cute little thing.

She loved to snack on nuts of different types, she was always amusing on stage when taken out for educational programs for kids and adults alike, and she loved her chin scritches.  She was full of personality, quite content to tell you to bugger off when she didn’t want to be bothered, loved to make up her own comfy sleeping spaces, and was a little tyrant when she felt like it.  I learned a lot about prairie dogs because of her, so when I received the following email from the HSUS I knew that I needed to talk about it, and talk about Clayton, here.

Prairie Dogs are what is known as a Keystone Species.  In short, they’re in the center of the food chain of food web in their local ecosystem.  They not only eat, and by extension, keep in check certain plants in their local area, they also serve as a valuable food source for certain animals in their local area.  The black footed ferret has nearly gone extinct right here in the USA as a result of loss of habitat and their primary food source, the prairie dog.

Additionally, their waste is actually a vital fertilizer for the ground and it returns nutrients that otherwise would not make it back into the ecosystem.  In short, if you remove prairie dogs from the ecosystem, very bad things happen.  Other animals begin to starve, certain plants begin to run wild or not grow at all because of the lack of fertilizer and, as is precious to meat eating humans, the cattle that graze on those plants lose out on properly growing pasture land.

Back in the 19th century prairie dogs were viewed solely as a pest to ranchers and residents of the American prairie.  Their extensive burrows were thought to serve as a danger to grazing cattle and other animals.  Ranchers and other individuals took it upon themselves to shoot and kill as many of the prairie dogs as possible in the hopes that these “dangerous burrows” would vanish.  Some burrows were filled in with entire colonies still inside, entombing them underground.  Others laid out poison to kill the little mammals in the hopes that they’d die off and leave the land open for the larger grass grazing mammals.  This was based on the mistaken notion that the prairie dogs were competing with the cattle for the same grasses.  They don’t.

We’re in the 21st century now and we know that there are ways to manage prairie dog colonies and that they are actually beneficial to the American grasslands.  The Prairie Dog Coalition and the HSUS have joined forces to try and keep these adorable little critters as a part of the American landscape and the grasslands ecosystem.  This year, so far, this partnership has saved 822 prairie dogs.  To support their work, click here.

I think Clayton would have approved.

~Kelly

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