The Sevilleta Gunnison’s Prairie Dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) Restoration project examines keystone consumer (herbivore) effects on grasslands in concert with ecological restoration of a “species of greatest conservation need in New Mexico” (NMG&F Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2007). SevLTER partners directly with US Fish & Wildlife on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge and non-profit Prairie Dog Pals on this ambitious effort to re-establish Gunnison’s prairie dogs to blue grama-dominated (Bouteloua gracilis) Great Plains grassland at the foothills of the Los Pinos Mountains on Sevilleta.
Prairie dogs 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 were reported to occupy ~15,000 ha of what is now the SNWR during the 1960’s, prior to their systematic eradication. 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. SevLTER is focusing resources on monitoring population dynamics of reintroduced prairie dogs and their effects on vegetation production and diversity and soil disturbance. In this experiment, prairie dogs act as the treatment on a grassland site where the species was extirpated 40 years ago. The long term nature of the project lies in the course of re-establishing prairie dogs combined with the ultimate research goal of describing the functional role of Gunnison’s prairie dogs in an arid grassland ecosystem: first we are challenged to develop and document an economical and efficient management strategy which maximizes reintroduction success and colony survival; second we are tasked with monitoring prairie dog dynamics and their effects on the grassland throughout re-establishment and into a future state, when presumably management intervention will have subsided and we characterize the ecosystem as ‘restored’ – both in the face of highly variable abiotic inputs such as precipitation and temperature and biotic impacts such as predation.