Persistence of Gunnison’s prairie dog colonies in Arizona, USA
ABSTRACT Although the five species of prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) are recognized as important components of grassland ecosystems in western North America, they have experienced major population declines due to poisoning, outbreaks of sylvatic plague, recreational shooting, and habitat conversion. From May 2000 to October 2001, we investigated 270 colonies of Gunnison’s prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) in Arizona. Because these colonies were classified as active in previous surveys (1987, 1990–1994, 1998), we were able to examine their persistence. Most (70%) of the colonies became inactive between the initial and recent surveys, with colony extinctions spanning our study area. Colony persistence was positively associated with the persistence of the nearest neighboring colony but was not associated with major vegetation type, distance to nearest neighboring colony, or initial size of the colony. The amount of area occupied by individual colonies varied between surveys, sometimes dramatically. We found little evidence that the reduction in active colonies was due to poisoning, recreational shooting, or habitat conversion. Rather, direct and indirect evidence suggest plague is the primary factor negatively impacting Gunnison’s prairie dog populations in Arizona. Currently, there is no way to control or prevent plague outbreaks in Gunnison’s prairie dog populations. To mitigate the effects of localized plague outbreaks on the overall population of this species, we suggest that Gunnison’s prairie dog be reintroduced to public lands throughout its historical range.