Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. In the first of a two-part series written by ASC volunteers with the Landmark program on the American Prairie Reserve, we learn about the interconnectedness of the prairie ecosystem.
By Meghan Riehl
The Landmark crews often come upon prairie dog towns while hiking transects, and are greeted with surround-sound chirps as the animals warn each other of the tall bi-pedal creatures approaching.
Black-tailed prairie dogs inhabit grasslands and sagebrush in extensive underground burrow systems. As a keystone species, they’re a huge part of the ecosystem, their colonies creating a habitat that benefits more than 150 other species.
This summer, our Landmark crew spent some of our free time helping a team of prairie dog biologists and field technicians. The work was directed by Randy Matchett, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and took place on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. Adjacent to American Prairie Reserve, the CMR, together with the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, encompasses 1.1-million acres spanning about 125 air miles along the Missouri River, from the Fort Peck Dam west to the boundary with the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Because they’re herbivores, prairie dog burrows rival some of the fanciest golf courses with their landscaping. The burrows, however, wouldn’t suit a golf course, because of the cone-shaped entrance mound that protrudes a foot or more out of the ground. I like imagining the animals lounging on dirt couches down there to stay cool, with dirt kitchens and living rooms. In reality, their tunnels extend vertically down from the entrance 3–10 feet, and continue horizontally for another 10–16 feet with some connecting tunnels here and there.
The biologists we helped are working to bolster the prairie dogs against the bubonic plague, which is carried by fleas and can devastate a colony and affect the entire ecosystem. To do so, the scientists trap the prairie dogs, tranquilize them, comb them for fleas, pluck whiskers and hairs, weigh them, take blood samples, put in tracking chips, and mark them with ear tags. The bait they lay out for the prairie dogs has a plague vaccine, and they use the whiskers to determine if they’ve eaten the bait. Blood samples are used to ultimately determine if the vaccine is working.
The team had an efficient system, where each person was designated a specific job to keep the assembly line moving. I was in charge of weighing the animals and ensuring they were asleep before they were pricked for blood. Watching the crew work, I observed how important communication and accuracy are when dealing with a time-sensitive situation.
Prior to modern settlement, black-tailed prairie dogs may have been the most abundant animal in the West, with some estimates putting their populations over a billion. Although they once occupied 40–80 million acres, widespread eradication efforts and loss of habitat have shrunk the population by more than 90 percent, and today they only inhabit one- or two-million acres.
In addition to providing a home for many other animals, the burrows help aerate and fertilize the soil, benefiting vegetation growth. Prairie dogs also are a food source for many animals, including coyotes, eagles, badgers and the critically endangered black-footed ferrets, which the second part of this series will cover.
Meghan Riehl grew up in Atkinson, New Hampshire, and rode the train West for her Landmark stint immediately after graduating Union College with a degree in geology this spring. Read more about her time on the American Prairie Reserve at her blog, Adventures on the Prairie.
Landmark is ASC’s groundbreaking project to provide “boots on the ground” support for the American Prairie Reserve management team. Find more about this and other ASC projects on our website, on the ASC Field Notes blog, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.