US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in BioScienceJuly 2002 / Vol. 52 No. 7.


Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus; hereafter, prairie dogs) are native to the short-grass prairie region of North America from Mexico to Canada (figure 1).According to government documents (64 Federal Register 57 at 14426–14427), before the 19th century expansion of the United States, prairie dogs inhabited millions of acres of the Great Plains and lived in huge colonies west of the Missouri River. Settlement of the Great Plains and the transformation of vast areas from native grassland to tilled farmland forever changed the prairie ecosystem and prairie dog habitat.
Over the course of the last century, the habitat range of the prairie dog shrank by nearly 99 percent (Dolan 1999, Kotliar et al. 1999). Among the causes of shrinkage is poisoning: Livestock operators began extensive poisoning of prairie dogs around 1880, and the federal government began subsidizing prairie dog poisoning in 1915, quickly making it an institutionalized practice for federal, state, tribal, and county governments (Dunlap 1988). Prairie dog numbers have been further reduced by disease (i.e., sylvatic plague [Yersinia pestis]; Barnes 1993), drought, urban sprawl, cultivation and grazing practices, and recreational shooting.