Despite their many benefits to other grassland species, prairie dogs continue to lose ground. In the 1930s, the sylvatic plague (the same bacterium that causes the bubonic plague in humans) was accidentally introduced to prairie dogs by fleas that arrived on ships from other parts of the world. Sylvatic plague typically kills prairie dogs, because they have little resistance to the disease. Outbreaks remain widespread to this day and can wipe out entire colonies in a matter of months.
Recreational shooters also use prairie dogs as target practice, killing large numbers of the colonial rodents. Additionally, because prairie dogs eat many of the same grasses as cattle, they are still perceived as a threat and intentionally poisoned. However, the evidence that prairie dogs and cattle compete for resources is mixed.
Although prairie dogs clip and eat grasses, they also help maintain grassland habitat for cattle. Their landscaping prevents woody shrubs from taking over and can increase the nutritional quality of grass by promoting the growth of young grasses that contain extra protein and are easier to digest. Competition between prairie dogs and cattle is a hotly contested, nuanced issue, and more research is needed to understand the full picture.
Prairie dogs face an uphill battle, and although we have learned a lot about them, the story is far from complete. We know one aspect that keystone species like prairie dogs, bison and wolves share is their indirect, yet important impact on the animals around them. By studying prairie dogs at American Prairie Reserve, Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, we hope to uncover the how and why.