Matt Jaffe

In a polarized world, where everyone has an opinion about everything everywhere and all at once, prairie dogs are rodents as Rorschach test.

If you focus-grouped prairie dogs, participants would fall into two distinct camps, with more scorched earth than common ground between them. As one study concluded: “The prairie dog has been cussed, discussed, protected, exploited, credited with doing so many good things, and accused of being completely bad.”

On one side, there’s a deeply rooted antipathy to prairie dogs among people who regard them as plague-carrying varmints whose burrows literally threaten life and limb of horses and cattle. “Prairie rats,” as some prefer to rebrand them, compete with cattle for forage, destroy crops and are good for nothing — except maybe target practice.

Over in Prairie Dog Nation, folks will tout these burrowing ground squirrels’ role as a keystone species. An estimated 150 other species depend on them for survival, from an ark-worthy assortment of predators to the black-footed ferrets, rattlesnakes and burrowing owls that take to prairie dog tunnels for shelter. Plants benefit because prairie dogs’ digging helps aerate soils and maintain ground moisture. Studies indicate that they can enhance the quality of forage, making vegetation more protein-rich and digestible for cattle.

Then, there’s the intangible, inescapable and ineffable: Prairie dogs are adorable. They even greet each other with kisses. The American meerkat. 

Unlike bison, prairie dogs never got minted on the tails side of the nickel. Nor do they get name-checked in Home on the Range along with buffalo, deer and antelope (even swans and beavers get shout-outs in later verses). Nevertheless, they’re frontier icons. And considering everything prairie dogs survive — death from the sky by raptors and ground-based attacks by coyotes (sometimes in concert with badgers), black-footed ferrets (prairie dogs make up 90 percent of their diet) and rattlesnakes (enough said) — these endemic North American creatures are positively heroic. All 3 or so pounds of them. 

Photograph by Bruce D. Taubert
A family of black-tailed prairie dogs gathers in the Dos Cabezas area. Unlike Arizona’s other native prairie dog species, the Gunnison’s, black-tailed prairie dogs do not hibernate in winter. | Bruce D. Taubert

“They’re the ultimate underdog,” says Jennifer Verdolin, a University of Arizona animal behavior expert. “They represent the best of the American dream and ideal, right? Here you have this animal that works hard and does the best it can and constantly gets beaten down. But it finds a way to survive. It always finds a way.

“I would love to see the prairie dog appreciated for what it represents to those things we think of as American. We have this ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ attitude. You can be the underdog and still make it. And what I admire about prairie dogs is their resilience. Their ability to recover from adversity. Their ingenuity and creativity. Their fierce refusal to go down lightly. They will fight a coyote. They will fight it to the very end.”

I’m no prairie dog agnostic, indoctrinated as I was by footage of prairie dogs scampering to an orchestral accompaniment in the Disney documentary The Vanishing Prairie and Woody Woodpecker warbling the refrain “Prairie dog is man’s best friend” in Saddle-Sore Woody. (At age 5, these things stick with you.) During college, I took a vertebrate social organization course — and, in addition to a “zoo’s who” of lions, chimpanzees and wolves, prairie dogs got their due.

They live in expansive “towns” populated by family groups known as coteries, and they have complex language systems — even local dialects. Prairie dogs have been remarkably successful animals — one of the five species, the black-tailed prairie dog, once had a population of 5 billion in a range from Sonora, Mexico, to Saskatchewan, Canada. According to ecologist George Wuerthner, the black-tailed might have been North America’s most abundant mammal.

But the settlement of the West devastated prairie dogs. Like bison, they endured systematic eradication campaigns. Like the continent’s Indigenous peoples, prairie dogs were ravaged by imported diseases for which they had no immunity. While prairie dogs can carry fleas that cause sylvatic plague, they’re more victims than perpetrators: Plague will kill off an entire colony within two weeks. So, for all their resilience, prairie dog populations have plunged by 95 percent or more.

In Flagstaff, I go out to see a town of Gunnison’s prairie dogs, one of Arizona’s two native species — their range extends into the Four Corners region and other parts of New Mexico and Colorado. “They were probably in every meadow and grassland around Flagstaff and all the way up to [Arizona] Snowbowl, then went down to about 4,500 feet,” says Emily Renn, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project and the translocation coordinator for Habitat Harmony, an organization that relocates prairie dog towns threatened by development. “Historically, someone could ride a horse pretty much from Gallup, New Mexico, past Seligman and be almost in contiguous prairie dog colonies.” The population declined, she adds, as a result of government-sponsored poisoning campaigns, habitat loss, shooting and the non-native plague bacteria.

The town is across from the Campbell Mesa Trailhead. Pristine wilderness, it’s not: The prairie dogs live in an abandoned cemetery pockmarked by their crater-like mounds. An adjacent dirt lot fills with one pickup and SUV after another as kids and parents arrive for an organized after-school mountain bike ride. If someone pedals too close to the town, a wave of sharp chirps quickly ripples across the colony.

It’s still early in the season for the Gunnison’s, which, unlike the black-tailed, hibernate in winter. Some of the animals chase each other, while others sit back on their haunches, bellies exposed in repose, like little Buddhas in Barcaloungers. Much of the action takes place underground, in a warren of tunnels with rooms delineated for specific purposes such as sleeping, rearing young and even pooping. Pups have probably already been born but won’t emerge for another month. Unlike most rodents, prairie dogs give birth to only one litter annually, which places a premium on parenting. Each coterie, essentially an extended family clan, has its own burrow network within the larger town. 

Photograph by Bruce D. Taubert
Two Gunnison’s prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni) “kiss” at a colony near the Arizona-New Mexico state line. This behavior is a key part of prairie dogs’ complex social networking, experts say. | Bruce D. Taubert

Habitat Harmony prioritizes properties that are slated for development and home to at least 50 prairie dogs. There’s currently no legal requirement to translocate them, although planning and zoning boards sometimes require it for project approval. But the coterie social structure and the intricacy of burrow systems mean translocating prairie dogs isn’t simply a matter of trapping the animals and dumping them off elsewhere. The work typically takes place in July and August to give pups a chance to mature enough to survive if they’re separated from their mothers. Summer releases also allow the animals time to dig new burrows before winter.

“We map exactly which hole where we caught the prairie dogs and put a flag there, identify them by sex and age, and put them together in pet carriers, especially the females and pups,” Renn says. “We’re constantly mapping and try to re-create the same geographic layout at the release site to keep the prairie dogs in their social groups.”

Prairie dogs, though, are not willing participants. To get them out of burrows, Renn says, handlers primarily use humane live traps but sometimes send water and dish soap into the holes. “We’re not trying to flood them out, but fill the tunnels with suds,” she says. “Then they’ll start crawling out, kind of all soapy, and we wait at the entrance and just grab them by hand and put them in pet carriers. We go hole by hole and try to catch members of the same coterie to keep them all together.”

Habitat Harmony looks for abandoned colony sites, sometimes where previous populations have “plagued out,” to borrow Renn’s term. Petrified Forest National Park is a prime release location because it has vacant towns and currently only about 300 acres of active colonies. When no burrows are available, biologists bury nest boxes and drainage pipes to create tunnels as a starter home before the animals begin digging on their own. 

Indeed, it sometimes takes a village to save a prairie dog village. Renn describes a recent event when Lower Lake Mary overflowed and a group of prairie dogs got flooded out of their burrows. Some took perilous refuge atop an earthen levee, with four bald eagles poised nearby and the water still rising. Renn consulted with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, saying she needed a boat to move the animals to dry ground. “Four fish crew members were in the area,” she recalls, “and later went out by boat and caught 19 prairie dogs with nets. And a pocket gopher, too.” 

When I first try to reach Verdolin, the UA animal behavior expert, she’s on a Fulbright fellowship studying mountain gorillas in Uganda, but that country’s rainy season has kicked in, effectively zapping our Zoom call. We finally talk while she’s briefly back in the U.S., in the less exotic and only slightly less humid Florida, where she grew up after moving from Italy.

If you’re a prairie dog, you couldn’t ask for a better advocate than Verdolin. She first worked with them in graduate school at Northern Arizona University and is not only an accomplished academic — having co-authored a book on prairie dogs with NAU’s Constantine Slobodchikoff, a pioneer in the study of prairie dog language — but also media-savvy. Verdolin has written such books as Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships and was a regular guest on comedian D.L. Hughley’s radio show. She now hosts her own podcast.

Prairie dogs, though, were not her original focus at NAU.
“I was more interested in predators and the red wolf introduction project,” she recalls. “When I got to NAU, I didn’t know anything about prairie dogs. All I cared about was who was eating them.”

Photograph by Bruce D. Taubert
A Gunnison’s prairie dog makes a warning call at a colony near Nelson Reservoir, southeast of Springerville. This species inhabits much of the Four Corners region. | Bruce D. Taubert

To conduct her research, Verdolin needed to build relationships with ranchers and landowners, many of whom despised prairie dogs, sometimes for legitimate concerns but also because they bought into myths about the animals.

“We developed a relationship,” she says. “They saw me as a person; I saw them as people. That changed the conversation. I was able to ask, ‘Don’t you find it curious that other animals, like bison, [pronghorns] and elk, all have been living around prairie dogs with seemingly no issues?’ And they did find that curious. … But I also really had to listen. These people had a problem. The problem was, prairie dogs did cause damage to their property. I began thinking [about] whether I could offer solutions that didn’t involve them killing prairie dogs.” 

The ranchers weren’t alone: Lots of things want prairie dogs dead, mostly for food, and Verdolin says the animals have evolved their complex language to contend with a multiplicity of threats. Not only do prairie dogs have separate calls for hawks and coyotes — logical if you want to alert your neighbors to whether the danger is arriving from the air or by ground — they also can distinguish between individual predators of the same species.

Verdolin says because prairie dog towns are at fixed locations, the same predators frequently return. But one coyote might have a different hunting strategy than another, so by identifying individuals rather than merely the type of predator, prairie dogs might better anticipate threats. In one study, a person walked through a colony, then came back while carrying a gun. The prairie dogs’ call changed. “Paying attention to the details can matter,” Verdolin says.

I drive down from Tucson to see the black-tailed prairie dogs at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, near Sonoita. By 1960, that species had been extirpated from Arizona; then, in 2008, Game and Fish reintroduced about 70 prairie dogs at Las Cienegas to promote the health of grassland ecosystems.

As I step out, the prairie dogs retreat into their burrows before gradually re-emerging. A sudden chorus of chirps erupts as a cow saunters through before things again fall quiet. A scavenging turkey vulture inspires more chatter, though not much agitation. But a red-tailed hawk on the hunt sends the town’s denizens scurrying underground.

Watching prairie dogs is real-life whack-a-mole, minus the mallet. At any given moment, the prairie dog town is a blur of activity, so the best approach is to concentrate on one or two animals. But invariably, the animals I watch disappear into the red earth before popping back up after I’ve shifted my attention elsewhere. It’s a little hypnotic, a little addictive and a bit frustrating.

Suddenly, the prairie dogs start chirping and anxiously turn to the south. Someone is walking up the road — an older man seemingly appearing out of nowhere in the middle of this vast expanse. Wearing dusty jeans and a straw hat, he has the scraggly beard and wiry build common to dryland seekers from Don Quixote to Edward Abbey. I never find out his name, just a few details: He moved to Sonora after years in Tucson and is camping nearby. He’s familiar with the town from a previous visit and very much a fellow citizen of Prairie Dog Nation.

“I had no idea they were out here — couldn’t believe it when I first saw them,” he says. “Couldn’t figure out why there weren’t more people watching them. But I knew that I had to come back. To see these prairie dogs again.”