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Be a Friend to Prairie Dogs

Find information about living with prairie dogs.

The Species: The Underground City: Respect Our Prairie Dog Neighbors

The little critters you see sitting upright on their hind feet, always keeping a lookout, are Albuquerque’s prairie dogs. They are the descendants of vast prairie dog towns that preceded the founding of our city.

Prairie dogs are the architects of the American prairie, the grasslands that used to cover much of our country. Prairie dogs benefit the soil, plants, and over 100 wildlife species, from pollinators attracted by flowering plants to mammals and birds who prey on prairie dogs, such as badgers, foxes, coyotes, eagles, and hawks. The burrowing owl, a vulnerable species, likes to live in prairie dog towns, regardless of whether the burrows are active or abandoned. Wherever you see prairie dogs, you are more likely to see other wildlife as well!

Our city is home to the species of Gunnison’s prairie dogs, which solely exists in the valleys and plateaus of the southern Rockies, including north-central New Mexico. In our patchy urban terrain, they can only build small colonies of around 50 to 100 individuals. But even smaller burrows are complex, with different areas for each function of life. There are living chambers, sleeping and nesting rooms, a food storage area, toilet rooms, and flood chambers.

Prairie dogs are mainly seen between April and October, when they are active during daytime, and most energetic around dawn and dusk. Prairie dogs breed once a year in the spring and have between 2 and 8 pups per litter. Only about half of these pups survive past their first year. Born in early May, pups emerge from the burrow in June. Prairie dogs care for their youngsters in communal nurseries. This is why you may see a large number of pups in one burrow.

See the Prairie Dogs Fact Sheet!

Did You Know?

Prairie dogs build complex underground towns. At the turn of the 20th century, an explorer discovered a prairie dog town that sprawled over 25,000 square miles of grassland in the Texas panhandle. This is nearly 200 times the size of Houston! Its 400 million residents were black-tailed prairie dogs. Since then, the prairie dog population in the U.S. has been decimated to just 1% of their original size.

A Keystone Species

Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species, because the health of the land, plants and other species is directly tied to prairie dogs. By burrowing deep into the ground, they break up hard-baked desert soil. This adds water and organic matter, which allows fertile grasslands to emerge. Prairie dogs also gnaw off woody shrubs, like mesquite and sagebrush, which would otherwise overtake grasses and wildflowers.

The Challenges: Prairie Dogs Need Your Help

Prairie dogs have faced much persecution from humans, and their population has been dramatically depleted. Efforts to secure protection for prairie dogs are ongoing. Sadly, their decimation through shooting, poisoning, drowning, and bulldozing continues.

Urban prairie dogs are trapped in small pockets of land, such as undeveloped lots, roadsides, and traffic intersections. Often, their colonies are threatened by development or are perceived as a nuisance.

You can contribute to defusing the widespread animosity against prairie dogs. Talk to your friends and neighbors and help dispel common misconceptions about this important species.

  • Prairie dogs are not at fault for bare and sparsely vegetated sites in our city: such sites attract prairie dogs because they have been disturbed and exposed by human activity. Prairie dogs value locations that allow good visibility, as our grasslands once did.
  • Prairie dogs don’t transmit plague – fleas do. It’s extremely rare for humans to catch plague, and we don’t get it from prairie dogs. But prairie dogs are susceptible to plague and die within 2 to 3 days of infection; entire colonies can be wiped out by this disease.
  • Prairie dog numbers are declining, not overpopulating, with only 1% of their original population remaining.
  • Prairie dogs and cattle benefit each other. Prairie dogs’ consistent clipping of pasture forage creates a shorter, but more nutrient-rich blade of grass. In many grassland habitats, both cattle and bison prefer to graze on prairie dog colonies.

Living in harmony with prairie dogs is not difficult, and benefits not just them but the entire ecosystem.

Action Tips: Be a Friend to Prairie Dogs! ❤ What You Can Do:

The words Tip #1

Enjoy the Prairie Dogs!

Prairie dogs have a complex and interesting social life. They also attract other wildlife. If you enjoy having wildlife around, prairie dogs provide endless opportunities for wildlife watching. But let them be wild and don’t feed them.

The words Tip #2

Use Barriers to Keep Prairie Dogs Out

In urban areas where conflicts could arise, such as a soccer field or large open garden, you can erect barriers to prevent prairie dogs from settling.

  • The best barriers are at least 3 feet high and opaque.
  • Artificial barriers can include fencing with poultry wire or a wide metal strip at the bottom.
  • Natural barriers such as dense shrubs can serve as visual obstructions while also enhancing the landscape.
  • Straw bales can serve as visual barriers that additionally protect areas while new plantings are getting established.

The words Tip #3

Practice Mindful Gardening

Prairie dogs love the disturbed soil that goes along with intensive gardening. When you are working the soil, keep that area out of view and it won’t attract prairie dogs.

The words Tip #4

Don't Use Rodenticides

Poisons will kill not only prairie dogs but endanger the health of many other species that feed on prairie dogs. Children and pets are also at risk.

The words Tip 5

Request assistance if prairie dogs appear in unwanted places.

If you see prairie dog holes popping up in unwanted places (such as sports fields, parks, playgrounds, trailheads), talk to your fellow community members about humane solutions. As a last resort, prairie dog colonies can be relocated; ask the City or the volunteer group, Prairie Dog Pals, for help.

Fun Fact: Do You Speek Prairie Dog?

Prairie dogs like to cuddle and kiss, but it’s their sophisticated language that really shows their intelligence. They have over 200 “words” and can form sentences identifying intruders by color, size, shape, and type of risk. For example, prairie dogs use different sounds or “words” to describe to each other a tall human in a yellow shirt, a short human with green pants, a small or large dog, or a coyote. They can distinguish between people and objects. Prairie dogs can even coin new words for things they’ve never seen before. This level of detail in their language allows prairie dogs to respond appropriately to different threats or events.

Just Ask: Need Help?

  • To request a relocation of prairie dogs where conflict threatens their existence, contact Prairie Dog Pals, an all-volunteer nonprofit, at 505-296-1937 or [email protected]. This group captures and moves endangered prairie dogs to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.
  • To observe prairie dogs in the wild, visit the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, located 50 miles south of Albuquerque (contact: 505-864-4021). It is one of the largest national wildlife refuges, and it has successfully reintroduced prairie dogs to help restore grasslands.

Be a Friend To Wildlife ❤ ABQ Wildlife Coexistence

Albuquerque is home to over 850 animal species, many of whom roamed these lands long before our city's founding. They are important city residents who help maintain healthy local ecosystems. Always Enjoy Wildlife from a distance.

Be a Friend to Wildlife: Dos & Dont's

Don't feed wildlife (except songbirds)
Don't feed pets outside
Don't leave pet waste
Don't use chemicals or poisons

Do keep your distance
Do seal garbage &compost
Do plant native flowers
Do supervise your pets
Do stay on trails