Black-tailed Prairie Dog Colony Expansion and Forage Response to Fire/Grazing Interaction

Restoring historic fire/grazing interactions and increasing the population of the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), a keystone species, are two management priorities for North America's grasslands. To evaluate the response of prairie dogs to the fire/grazing interaction, 2-ha plots of uncolonized mixed-grass prairie directly adjacent to active prairie dog colonies on Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge were burned in 2009 and 2010. Longhorn cattle (Bos taurus) and American bison (Bison bison) had access to the sites during both years thus replicating historic conditions where herbivores freely chose foraging patches. Prairie dogs responded positively to the fire/grazing interaction treatments by immediately colonizing all burned areas in both years, with the strongest response occurring in 2009 when precipitation during the growing season was lowest. There was no observed attempt to colonize any unburned (control) grasslands. When applied to appropriate sites, it appears that the fire/grazing interaction can create valuable habitat for dispersing prairie dogs which can aid in colony expansion and potentially improve conditions for colony establishment.

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