Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens)

White-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus)Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)

RANGE & HABITAT

Three related prairie dog species live on separate ranges in Utah. The Utah prairie dog, a threatened species, is found only in south-central and southwestern areas of the state. The white-tailed prairie dog occupies high-elevation grass and sagebrush plains and meadows in northern and eastern Utah, as well as portions of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. The endangered Gunnison's prairie dog is a resident of the Four Corners area.

DESCRIPTION

Prairie dogs, of course, are not dogs at all - they are rodents given their name by explorers and pioneers because of their barklike calls. The white-tailed species is the largest of the three. Adults can be up to 141/2 inches long. Distinctive for their short white tails, their upper bodies are a yellow- to pinkish-buff streaked with black, with brown spots above their eyes and patches on their cheeks. The related Utah prairie dog is smaller, a grizzled cinnamon to buff with a whitish area around the mouth. Gunnison's prairie dogs are also buff with a dark head and cheeks and gray-white tail.

DIET AND HABITS

Active in daylight near colonies, or towns, of burrows and mounds, they feed upon rangeland grasses, shrubs and other plants, as well as some insects (one source indicates Utah prairie dogs particularly like cicadas). Some adults begin hibernating for the winter by late August; often juveniles do not slip into dormancy until early November. Litters of three to eight young are born in late April or early May. Predators include badgers, ferrets, coyotes and raptors, including eagles.

OF INTEREST

Once considered rangeland pests, prairie dogs were targets of eradication campaigns in the past that endangered some species. (The population of the Utah prairie dog, once estimated at 95,000 animals, declined to 2,000 by 1976.) Protection under the Endangered Species Act and transplant efforts by state and federal agencies have increased some numbers. Also attributed to their decline is the near-extinction of the black-footed ferret, which preyed upon prairie dogs and usurped their burrows.

Sources: Utah Museum of Natural History; Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; Fish & Wildlife Information Exchange, Virginia Tech