Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) are burrowing rodents considered to be ecosystem engineers and keystone species of the central grasslands of North America. Yet, prairie dog populations have declined by an estimated 98% throughout their historic range. This dramatic decline has resulted in the widespread loss of their important ecological role throughout this grassland system. The 92,060 ha Sevilleta NWR in central New Mexico includes more than 54,000 ha of native grassland. Gunnison’s prairie dogs (C. gunnisoni) were reported to occupy ~15,000 ha of what is now the SNWR during the 1960’s, prior to their systematic eradication. In 2010, we collaborated with local agencies and conservation organizations to restore the functional role of prairie dogs to the grassland system. Gunnison’s prairie dogs were reintroduced to a site that was occupied by prairie dogs 40 years ago. This work is part of a larger, long-term study where we are studying the ecological effects of prairie dogs as they re-colonize the grassland ecosystem.
Four replicate paired 16 ha plots were established in spring 2010. Each pair consists of a treatment plot with prairie dogs (reintroduced), which are plots B and D and a control plot with no prairie dogs (plots A and C). The closest distance between adjacent plots, either within a block or between blocks, is 200 m (Figure 1). The treatment and control within each pair were randomly assigned. Each plot is a 400x400 m on 9x9 grid array with systematically located sample locations for 81 vegetation quadrats. There are also 4 more plots, E and H are control plots and F and G are treatment plots. F and G have been equipped with artificial burrows and are release sites. However, E and H were not set up to do vegetation quads.
Prairie dogs will be sampled using capture-recapture methods in the summer (3rd week of June) each year and spring (last week of March) and fall when possible.
Set 150 traps within each 300m x 300m trapping area. Place traps in pairs near active burrows at least 4 days prior to trapping. At this time trap doors should be wired open (make certain all traps are properly wired open) with bait trailing from the outside into the back of (or through) the trap. Traps should be baited with sweet feed. Make sure that all traps are functioning properly by testing the trap door sensitivity and adjusting with pliers if needed. Pre-bait traps every morning for 3 days total. All pairs of traps should be numbered with one pin flag for each pair (1-75). All trap pairs should also be GPSed by their number and have maps made for ease of locating traps during trapping.
On the morning of the first trapping day, well before sunrise, the wire should be removed from the traps and the traps then set and baited to capture animals. This can also be done the day before trapping begins. Prairie dogs should be trapped for 3 consecutive mornings.Each morning of trapping, make sure that the traps are all opened well before sunrise, so animals are not disturbed by human activity. This is very important. Traps should only be left opened during the early morning period, until about 10:00 or 11:00 am, depending on the weather conditions and time of year. Prairie dog activity declines by 10:00-11:00, so even if the weather conditions are fine for continued trapping, trap success after this time will decline. Traps should be collected by around 9:00 am, depending on the weather conditions and time of year, and all trapped animals should be brought to a common processing station. The team walks the plot to make sure and check every trap for dogs. As dogs are found trapped, a piece of masking tape is attached to the front of the trap, labeled with the trap number so that that animal can be released where it was trapped. Animals at the processing site should be kept at all times in the shade and carrots should be given to provide moisture during the heat and stress. Once animals have been processed they should be released into their burrow, at the location of their capture. All traps should then be closed for the day. To make sure all are closed, one person should close all the traps from one of the plots and mark the number on the GPS sheet to note the trap has been closed. This can also be done as a team effort, but traps need to be checked twice to make sure they are all closed.