We stopped at a Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony in the South Dakota Badlands. Prairie dogs populations are decimated across their Great Plains range. Drought and plague cut their numbers. They are vulnerable to a number of predators—hawks from above, snakes and ferrets from below. Ranchers often despise them—accusing the rodent of competing with livestock, destroying crops, and even injuring horses that might stumble in their burrows. “Sportsmen” use them for target practice.
Prairie dogs are a Keystone species in their prairie habitat. Predators depend on them. Their burrows shelter a number of other species. That is why we stopped. We searched in vain for Burrowing Owls that we listed last year at this same colony. Perhaps the owls already departed on their fall migration or maybe we were unobservant.