It’s 5 o’clock in the morning and the only sound is the rattle of truck tires on gravel. In the beam of the headlights, a porcupine ambles along the edge of the road before disappearing. As we drive through Grasslands National Park, the truck empties, slowly but surely, as each researcher is dropped off at a different field site.
Today, our field work is focused on monitoring black-tailed prairie dogs. Working together with our partners at Parks Canada, Calgary Zoo researchers are studying how climate change and sylvatic plague impact this at-risk species.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are very social mammals and live in family groups that make up larger colonies, also known as prairie dog towns. Like the towering bison that dot the landscape, pint-sized prairie dogs are a keystone species in this rare ecosystem. Their extensive burrowing helps to aerate the sunbaked soil, promoting new plant growth for bison to graze, and provides refuge for many species, from black-widow spiders to burrowing owls. These ecosystem engineers are also an important food source for predators, including black-footed ferrets. Black-footed ferrets specialize in hunting prairie dogs and our research on black-tailed prairie dogs is essential to restore this unique predator-prey relationship.
We arrive at our field site, hiking down from the butte through sweet-smelling pasture sage and rocks painted with lichen. The sun creeps over the mixed-grass prairie as we approach a prairie dog town. We’re greeted by the pips and squeaks of local residents bolting for the safety of their burrows. In the distance, we catch sight of a badger scampering between the crater-like burrows in search of a meal.
Predators are just one of the many challenges black-tailed prairie dogs face. In recent years, drought has become a serious threat for the species in Canada. Drought dries out the plants that prairie dogs rely on for food and moisture. Lacking food, prairie dogs can’t gain the weight they need to survive the winter and reproduce in the spring. As a result, in years after a drought, prairie dog populations decline. Cycles of growth and decline are normal in prairie dog colonies but, as drought becomes more frequent, it becomes more difficult for populations to rebound. Yet, black-tailed prairie dogs persist in Grasslands National Park.
“In recent years, these prairie dogs have been through three droughts, sylvatic plague, a flash flood, a major fire, and the reintroduction of a specialist predator and they just keep going,” says Tara Stephens, Population Ecologist on the project. “They’re incredibly resilient.”
Our monitoring efforts in partnership with Grasslands National Park are helping to improve our understanding of black-tailed prairie dog population dynamics, an essential step for black-footed ferret recovery. This research will inform conservation management for prairie dogs, helping them to continue to fulfill their important role in Grasslands National Park.
If you want to see this keystone species for yourself, don’t worry, you don’t need to travel all the way to Grasslands National Park. You can visit our prairie dogs in Canadian Wilds at the Calgary Zoo, but you’ll have to hurry! They’ll soon bunker down for winter.