Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Nicole DollBlog, Education

Black-tailed prairie dog
  • Scientific nameCynomys ludovicianus  
  • SARA Status: Threatened
  • COSEWIC Status: Threatened  
  • COSEWIC Range: Saskatchewan 

While they may be regarded as a pest to farmers and grazing managers, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are a keystone species of the prairies, providing habitat and food for many other grassland animals. Given that they are an integral part of the ecosystem and are declining, it’s no surprise that other species who depend on them are also in danger of becoming extinct.  

Photo by Dean Biggins, courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

The Black-tailed Prairie Dog is a large species of squirrel that is found in southern Saskatchewan, mostly within Grasslands National Park. They live in short and mixed-grass prairies and require loose soils that support their underground network of burrows. They are social species that live in colonies and form unique family structures.  

Because of their burrowing habits, Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies found in farmers’ and ranchers’ fields have been posed as a threat and a risk to livestock. This resulted in colonies being poisoned, trapped, shot, flooded, and dynamited.

Furthermore, their social lifestyle has made them much more susceptible to diseases, which has heavily influenced population levels. In particular, the sylvatic plague, which was first discovered in the population in 2010. 

The decline of this species has caused cascading effects throughout the whole ecosystem. Burrows made by prairie dogs are used as habitat for many other ground-dwelling grassland species, many of which are endangered, such as burrowing owls, mountain plovers, short-horned lizards, rattlesnakes, and the swift fox.  

Moreover, the black-tailed prairie dog is a huge part of diet for other endangered species, such as the ferruginous hawk, eagles, badgers, and of course, the black-footed ferret, who have become extirpated from Canada due in part to the diminished prairie dog populations.

Not only do the prairie dogs benefit the existence of many other species, but they also improve soil and vegetation quality and biodiversity by grazing and digging. 

The decline of this species exemplifies just how delicate the ecosystem is. Coupled with habitat loss and degradation, the decline of prairie dogs subsequently has led to an endangered biome, leaving many species fighting for survival.

Threats: Prairie dogs have been impacted by diseases, in particular, the sylvatic plague. Weather events such as droughts, which are expected to increase, limit food production, and are thought to cause population fluctuations.

Since much of the remaining population is protected within Grasslands national park, there are no longer any threats related to habitat loss and degradation. That being said, the species will unlikely be able to expand their population outside of the park.  

What’s being done: Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are protected federally under the Species At Risk Act, and there are a number of action and management plans in efforts to maintain a stable population. Within Grassland National Park, conservation efforts such as plague mitigation, disease surveillance, and habitat management have helped maintain population levels.  

Resources:

Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)