After a 50-year absence, black-tailed prairie dogs are experiencing a resurgence thanks to a project conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Black-tailed prairie dogs have long been considered a pest by local ranchers, as the rodents often forage on the same grass as livestock in the ranchers’ fields. The burrows created by the prairie dogs also increase the likelihood for injury to horses and cattle.
In the early 1900s, a government-sponsored campaign nearly eradicated the black-tailed prairie dog population across central North America. Arizona was the only state in the union that succeeded in exterminating the black-tailed prairie dog population within its borders.
In 2008, on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Game and Fish began re-establishing colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs at the Las Cienegas National Conservation area southeast of Tucson. Here, “starter burrows” were created as habitats for the prairie dogs as a means of reintroducing the population.
Since then, three black-tailed colonies have been established. Every month, biologists and volunteers check on the colonies, painting numbers on the prairie dogs which helps in identifying them from a distance.
The work done by Arizona Game and Fish is a necessary effort in strengthening the ecosystem in the area, as the black-tailed prairie dogs are considered a keystone species in the grassland habitat. The prairie dogs at Las Cienegas not only help reduce the growth of invasive plant species such as mesquite, but also improve the soil and drainage systems in the grasslands as a result of their digging and grass-clipping.