Black-tailed prairie dogs return to southeastern Arizona

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After years of work and countless public meetings, the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD) recently reintroduced the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) into southeastern Arizona at the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The Arizona Zoological Society (AZS) worked with stakeholder groups for years to design a regional conservation plan that included bringing back this species. Black-tailed prairie dogs are found in 11 U.S. states and northeastern Mexico. Arizona is the only state in their historic range where the once-common black-tailed prairie dogs were eliminated entirely.

Seventy-four black-tailed prairie dogs captured at a ranch in Mexico were released at Las Cienegas in October 2008. AZGFD biologists have conducted weekly counts in the area since the release, and expect that the group numbers in the mid to high 20s now. The prairie dogs are relatively inactive during the coldest part of the year, so it is hard to get a good count until springtime activity begins. The animals were released in the fall so they could get acclimated to their new surroundings prior to the onset of winter, and so they would be somewhat protected from predators for the winter months. Previous research indicates that a 10% survival rate is not unexpected, so the population is thought to be doing well so far with over one-third surviving to date.

According to state wildlife biologists, the return of black-tailed prairie dogs is one of the first steps in restoring the complete grassland system in southeastern Arizona. By restoring this piece of the puzzle, perhaps we will see other parts of the ecosystem return. Scientific research indicates that this burrowing grazer has a positive impact on flora and fauna in the grasslands it occupies. One hope is that the return of this native grazer will help exterminate the non-native, invasive Lehman lovegrass that is outcompeting the native grasses of the region. The ultimate goal of the restoration of this habitat is the eventual return of other key species that have vanished over the years, including burrowing owls.

As a part of the Adaptive Management Conservation Plan, AZGFD and its partners will continue to monitor and document the reintroduced rodents' impact on their surroundings. The prairie dogs have been placed on state trust lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as a part of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. They share the landscape with cows on a grazing allotment and with the support of the cattle growers. The reintroduction has been controversial, as some question whether this particular grassland was a part of the prairie dogs' historic range. Concerns have also been raised regarding whether the landscape has evolved in ways that are not conducive to tolerating or supporting this species. All involved are committed to working in partnership to monitor this effort and respond with appropriate strategies when and if action is required.

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Come visit the Zoo's black-tailed prairie dog colony on the Arizona Trail. They are located near in the Arizona Aviary.