Can Prairie Dogs be Managed Utilizing Reconciliation Ecology?

By Roberta C. Barbalace

[Jun. 5, 2007]

Reconciliation ecology is not really a new idea. Henry David Thoreau included human beings and human activity as part of the "environment (1)." However, the whole concept seems quite foreign and unbelievable to those who are steeped in modern Western philosophy. The concept of reconciliation ecology is to accommodate wild species within a human modified or occupied landscape(2). According to Michael Rosenzweig, saving a major part of the world's biodiversity will require more than just setting aside parks and wildlife preserves. It will require that humans adapt their own environments to accommodate other species(1). Rosenzweig defines reconciliation ecology as " the science of inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, or play. Reconciliation Ecology seeks environmentally sound ways for us to continue to use the land for our own benefit(3, 4). Rosenzweig continues, "Although these habitats would not be ideally suited to wild things, they would provide enough support to allow them to adapt to us "(8)

Interestingly enough, nature has been one of our best teachers of possibilities that can result from reconciliation ecology. One such serendipitous event occurred in what might seem like a very unlikely setting for reconciliation between humans and nature. The site was located in huge gorges that had been dug to create cooling canals at The Turkey Point Power Station, a nuclear power reactor in southern Florida. As it turns out, the canals created the optimum conditions for the endangered American Crocodiles. Without being invited, the crocs moved in, took up residence and are now one of the healthiest breeding populations of American Crocodiles in the country. The power plant has welcomed the crocodiles and taken a major interest in preserving the environment for the huge reptiles and other species as well(5).

Another famous reconciliation project in Eilat, Israel was the result of the closing of the Suez Canal in the 1950s. The Israelis tore up most of the coral reefs to make a port. Later Eilat became a tourist trap. Only a tiny piece of the coral reef survived, but a clever entrepreneur decided to take advantage of the surviving reef. He built an underwater restaurant tucked inside the reef. With the help of scientists and other individuals who were interested in preserving the coral reefs, a coral "hospital" was created to cure ailing coral that were brought to the reef. Once rehabilitated, the coral are wired into the reef. The reef is recovering, and other species are moving in to make it their home(6,7).

Other reconciliation ecology projects have been much more intentional. The classic example is the recovery project for the bluebird. In the early to mid-1950s bluebirds were common visitors to our birdfeeder. Then suddenly we saw fewer and fewer every year. While some people blame it on the harsh winter in the South East in 1857-58(4), that explanation is probably a "cop out" to put the blame somewhere other than upon humans. Bluebirds nest in holes of dead trees. Humans find dead trees to be unsightly and dangerous, so they cut down dead and dying trees. Bluebirds moved into the only vacant holes they could find, in wooden fence posts. In the mid 1950s farmers began replacing wooden fence posts with metal ones. The holes that were left for bluebirds to nest in were occupied early in the spring by birds that either over-wintered in the North or returned earlier than the bluebirds(4). To complicate matters, the late 1800s house sparrows and starlings were introduced into the United States. Both had a devastating effect on the bluebird population. They both competed with the bluebirds for nesting spots. The bluebirds forced to occupy fewer and fewer holes in lower places, and as a result, they became easy prey for the house cat(4). As a result of a calamity of ecological errors caused by human beings, the very existence of the bluebird was in jeopardy. The North American Bluebird Society was established on March 20, 1978. Their first mission was simple, but extremely effective. After much research and several failed attempts, they finally designed a birdhouse that is specifically suited for bluebirds. The bluebirds now have a habitat in which it is safe from predators and not suited to any of the bluebird's typical competitors. The new home has given bluebirds a second chance(10, 11).

If reconciliation ecology has worked for crocodiles, coral reefs, and bluebirds, is it possible that it could work with prairie dogs? Interestingly enough, the survival of many other species seems to hinge on the survival of the prairie dog. About 90% of the ferret's diet consists of prairie dogs. In addition, the golden eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, and swift fox diets include a large percentage of prairie dogs. According to Nicole Rosmarino/Southern Plains Land Trust,(12) the mountain plover appears to be a prairie dog obligate or at the very least is highly dependent on prairie dogs for survival, using the borrows for breeding, nesting, and feeding. Burrowing owls, prairie falcons badgers and a host of other prairie animals are associated with prairie dog colonies. In fact, some ecologists consider the prairie dog to be a keystone species of the prairie(12). According to Miller et. al,(13) nearly 170 species rely on prairie dog colonies to some extent for their very survival. Miller further concludes that the prairie dog fits the definition of a keystone species because prairie dogs affect the ecosystem structure, function, and composition in a way that is not duplicated by other species.

If Miller and Rosmarino are correct, the health of many prairie ecosystems may be dependent upon preservation of prairie dogs at a certain level. At the same time, ranchers are dependent upon the rangeland ecosystem for their very livelihoods. How, then, could both needs be served? Is it possible that reconciliation ecology could play a role? First of all, we must look at ways in which the prairie dog could help to preserve the rangeland. Does the prairie dog have any attributes that could be useful to ranchers?

According to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission(14), prairie dogs and larger grazing animals can actually benefit from each other's presence. Cattle can keep grassland cropped low enough to allow prairie dogs to occur. At the same time, the prairie dog's feeding and clipping can stimulate new and higher quality plant growth for cattle. As a result, it has been hypothesized that the loss of rangeland due to prairie dog infestation has probably been overestimated in many cases(14).

Prairie dog colonies tend to increase the ability of an arid region to conserve rainwater by channeling the water into the water table. The borrows can also provide a means of underground storage, thus preventing flooding(12). The soil quality of the rangeland can actually be improved by prairie dog activities. Their clipping and activities result in less leaf area for transpiring to take place; digging enables water to penetrate deeper into the soil, and this can lead to a higher ratio of green forage on prairie dog colonies later in the season.

Prairie dogs control noxious weeds and invader species on the prairie. If there are sufficient numbers of prairie dogs present in a given ecosystem, they will control mesquite infestations by removing pods, and seeds and strip the bark from seedlings, often causing death of the young plants.

Prairie dog infestation most often results when rangeland is overgrazed. Prairie dogs thrive in excess in areas where the grass has been nipped very short by grazing cattle. They depend upon short grass in order to be able to see predators and take action before they arrive at the colony. Rangeland that is covered with tall grass is not very enticing to a prairie dog. Prairie dogs could well serve as an indicator species that will notify a rancher of the condition of the rangeland. If there are few or no prairie dogs on the rangeland, perhaps, the rancher could increase the number of cattle units that are grazed in that unit. On the other hand, if there are too many prairie dog colonies it could indicate that the range unit is being overgrazed.

Research is needed to determine how the prairie dog and rancher could benefit from each other. If indeed the prairie dog is a keystone species as research has suggested, the future of the rangeland ecosystem may well depend upon reconciliation between the rancher and the prairie dog.

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Prairie Dogs (Small Mammal - Big Controversy)

Other articles in this series:


  1. Rick MacPherson; statement on Henry David Thoreau;; 4/28/07; last accessed 6/2/07
  2. Rosenzweig, Michael L.; Reconciliation ecology and the future of species diversity; Oryx; Vol 37 No 2 April 2003; Last accessed 6/2/07
  3. Rosenzweig, Michael L.; The Careful Footprint; Last accessed 6/2/07
  4. Rosenzweig, Michael L.; Chapter 6, Hard Core Reconciliation; Win-Win Ecology; 2003. Last accessed 6/2/07
  5. Nyberg, Kara; Reconciliation Ecology Could Save Species Headed for Extinction, UA Ecologist Says; University of Arizona; May 10, 2001; Last accessed 6/2/07
  6. G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment 15th Edition
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  10. Janetatos, Mary D.; A History of the North American Bluebird Society; Last accessed 6/2/07.
  11. NASB Nestbox Specifications; North American Bluebird Association; Last accessed 6/2/07.
  12. Rosmarino, Nicole /Southern Plains Land Trust; Prairie Dogs Are a Keystone Species of the Great Plains; Great Plains Restoration Council; 2005; Last accessed 6/2/07.
  13. Miller, B,; The Role of Prairie Dogs as a Keystone Species: Response to Stapp; Denver Zoological Foundation / University of Maryland / Yale University / SInstituto de Ecologia / The Wildlands Project / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station; Conservation Biology; Volume 14, No. 1, February 2000; Last accessed 6/2/07
  14. The Black-tailed prairie dog; Great Plains Restoration Council; 2005; Last accessed 6/2/07.

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