IALC Peace Fellowship Report October 2002

Amir Arnon
Senior Undergraduate Student 

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Ecology and Restoration of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs 
in Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands

Title of Project: Ecology and restoration of black-tailed prairie dogs in Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands (this was not a previously funded IALC project)

During the month of October 2002, I visited New Mexico State University, and worked with Dr. Mark Andersen and his graduate student, Heather Adams. Note: Dr. Anderson was previously funded by the IALC.

The research in which I participated was on activity budgets of the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), and was conducted at the Armendaris Ranch in the Chihuahuan desert, about 100 miles north to the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Black-tailed prairie dogs have lived throughout large parts of North America from Canada to Mexico. However, in the last two centuries, their number declined dramatically, and today the species is considered uncommon, and has become extinct from many of its former range.

The main reasons for the decline in numbers were mainly habitat loss, and hunting. These animals were considered pests by farmers, and lots of money and efforts were used in the attempt to eradicate them, by the government as well as private farmers.

In the last decades, the considerable influence of the black-tailed prairie dog on its habitat was recognized, and it was declared a key-stone species.

Prairie dogs change their environment both passively and actively. They cut tall grass around their colonies to reduce coverage for predators, and cause shifts in plant community because they eat only certain plants.

It has been shown that bison and cattle prefer to graze near prairie dogs colonies, probably because the vegetation there is more palatable and nutritious. The combination of feeding and cutting by prairie dogs, and grazing by bison, helps maintain the plant community and the ecosystem, in a grassland state, and prevents invasion by plants from neighboring habitats, such as shrubland, and woodland.

In 1999, 150 prairie dogs were reintroduced to the Armendaris with the goal of modifying their habitat, and thereby allow the existence of many species that utilize prairie dogs and their colonies, such as the burrowing owl, aplomado falcon, ferruginous hawk, swift fox, and the black-footed ferret. Most of the prairie dogs have survived at their new home, but many have died. This has proved that there is still a great need for knowledge on their biology and ecology in order to provide guidelines for restoration of prairie dogs and their habitats.

The research in which I participated focuses on the behavior of the prairie dogs, mainly on changes in their activity budgets, between seasons, sexes, and ages.

During the month I spent in New Mexico, I helped in the field in trapping, measuring, and marking the animals, and in doing behavioral observations. I also got a chance to improve my GIS skills, by working with people from the Department of Fishery and Wildlife, who work in that field. I also got a chance to join field trips, and to see many of the native animals and plants.

It was very interesting for me, coming from the Negev desert in Israel to a different desert, and to see the similarities and differences between the two areas. One very beautiful (and at first, strange) phenomenon is the abundance of Cacti species, completely absent in old world deserts.

It was a great and horizons broadening experience to spend time in a university in a foreign country. I have learned a lot, and had the chance to meet and interact with researchers and graduate students.

One of the things I came to realize was the importance of nature resources, and wildlife management. In Israel, these areas are not developed enough, and I hope I can contribute in that field, in the future.

I will recommend anyone to be a Peace Fellow; it is a great opportunity to learn about ecological research, to learn new concepts, and to meet with researchers.

I am very grateful to Dr. Mark Andersen and to all the people at the Department of Fishery and Wildlife Sciences, for their kind hospitality and help.