It Begins With Prairie Dogs

“The story of the Utah prairie dog is the story of the range of our compassion. If we can extend our idea of community to include the lowliest of creatures, call them ‘the untouchables’, then we will indeed be closer to a path of peace and tolerance. if we cannot accommodate ‘the other’, the shadow we will see on our own home ground will be the forecast of our own species’ extended winter of the soul.” ~Terry Tempest Williams

Let me tell you about black-tailed prairie dogs, about how I fell into them watching them from the empty bus to Broomfield. Jumping and running, diving and emerging. I watched them scurry about and live their prairie dog lives for weeks while riding the bus, marveling at their existence in the middle of highway medians. What kind of brave and resourceful creatures could function in such marginal habitat?

I did some light investigating out of interest. I found out in quick succession a few things that turned them into my passion for the next two years:

  • They have advanced communication abilities, arguably a language.
  • There used to be over 5 billion, now up to 99% of the population has been lost.
  • Humans exterminated, poisoned, and trapped them by the ton.
  • They are critical to prairie ecosystems, housing burrowed owls and feeding black-footed ferrets, among numerous other species.
  • There is no better use of a few hours than watching a colony of prairie dogs, yip, jump, scamper, greet each other, and generally go about their prairie dog days. You are almost guaranteed to see some other wildlife pop up as well.
Image from National Geographic Magazine
Image from National Geographic (1998)

Prairie dogs are part of a largely lost natural heritage, along with the buffalo, wolves, and others. They are not iconic, they are not part of a sweeping Western movie vista, but they belong there.

If you find yourself in Colorado or Utah, go spend 20 minutes watching a colony. I defy you to leave without being intrigued about these marvelous social critters.


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