Prairie dogs return to Galisteo Basin
The Gunnison Prairie Dog population in Galisteo Basin has increased from 58 in 2009 to 250 in 2011 thanks to a coordinated effort by the Sierra Club, City of Santa Fe, People for Native Ecosystems, and Wild Earth Guardians.
After decades of extirpation, several hundred healthy Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs have been reintroduced to the Galisteo Basin. This key “eco-engineer” of the short-grass prairie is a mammal on the state’s list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need and a recent addition to the National Endangered Species list.
Like most projects to re-establish wild populations, this effort started small, with 58 adults placed in eight burrows in the fall of 2009. Volunteers from the Northern New Mexico Group closely monitored and fed the tiny group over the first winter and saw a small increase in numbers in the summer of 2010. This year the story has greatly changed. More animals have been released and the colony has taken take off despite the drought and the disruption of more site-building. Now there are more than 250 active burrows naturally dispersed over 20 acres surrounding the original two-acre site.
The reintroduction is the result of the City of Santa Fe working with three volunteer groups under the direction of biologist Paula Martin and a local landowner who agreed to set aside the land for conservation purposes. Volunteers from the Northern New Mexico Group along with People for Native Ecosystems took responsibility for assisting with capture, release, quarantine care and building nesting boxes for relocation, while WildEarth Guardians provided the heavy equipment for site preparation and installation. Over the past two years, Sierra Club members have provided the relocated prairie dogs ongoing food and monitoring.
What makes this small, intelligent, burrowing colonizer so valuable and so vulnerable?
Dozens of species benefit from the burrowing and feeding habits of prairie dogs. Their grazing patterns promote the growth of forbs and vetches that increase a more diverse and nutritious land cover than just grass, and their deep burrows capture water and let it permeate and enrich the soil rather than sheet off and cause erosion. Many other species, some highly threatened, such as black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, many carnivores and raptors directly benefit from the enriched vegetation, stored water, and increased insect, rodent and small wildlife populations found in prairie-dog colonies. Also, the prairie dog is an ancient species that has survived thousands of years by matching its rate of reproduction to the changing climatic patterns and availability of food. In drought years, few litters are born, populations drop and the grassland ecosystem is not overly stressed.
Unfortunately, prairie dogs cannot migrate out of danger. Their vulnerability lies in their immobility if threatened by development, disease or shooters using them for target practice. Only capture and release to safer environments can save these vital animals when their habitat is threatened. Once relocated, only time, suitable soils and vegetation, low predation and lots of luck can help them thrive in their new homes.
By Teresa Seamster, Wildlife Chair, Northern New Mexico Group
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