Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 2002


Published in Great Plains Research 12:2 (Fall 2002): 219-54. Copyright © 2002 Center for Great Plains Studies.


Recorded presettlement observations of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are not adequate to fully determine their abundance and distribution. Early naturalists and explorers made only casual reports of prairie dogs on an opportunistic basis; their written records do not represent systematic surveys. Cumulative accounts of prairie dog control efforts, together with the known current prairie dog distribution in North Dakota and Montana, clearly show that most journalists failed to record prairie dog colonies. Also, they restricted their travels to a few common routes, and as a result only a very small and select portion of the landscape was surveyed. The hypothesis that prairie dogs dramatically increased in abundance following settlement is highly speculative. It ignores the fact that the Great Plains were once populated by large numbers of native ungulates, and that prairie dog control efforts began as early as the 1880s. Many lines of evidence suggest that the black-tailed prairie dog was common prior to European-American settlement and occupied 2%-15% of large landscapes (400,000 ha or more). There are systematic accounts of prairie dogs at the time of settlement, government records concerning poisoning efforts, physical evidence of abandoned historic colonies, and contemporary information on prairie dog ecology, dispersal, distribution, and abundance, as well as pre settlement accounts of large colonies measured in miles. The association of an obligate predator (the black-footed ferret [Mustela nigripes]) and a commensal bird species (e.g., mountain plover [Charadrius montanus] and burrowing owl [Athene cunicularia]) with the prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) is considered additional evidence that prairie dogs were abundant and widespread for an extended period. The presence of black-tailed prairie dogs throughout the short- and mixed-grass regions of the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico provided an important and unique habitat to a variety of wildlife species. We conclude that the black-tailed prairie dog was more abundant than suggested by tallies of observations in the journals of early European travelers.