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Recovery program aims to prevent inclusion as an endangered species
Biologists were cautious in their predictions for the success of a black-tailed prairie dog colony established late last year in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area near Sonoita. After all, the 74 animals released in October faced some foreseen and many unforeseen challenges.
However, early surveys conducted in June indicate the original adults are faring well and have begun to establish a foothold in their new community with the addition of at least two litters of pups.
“Establishing a new black-tailed prairie dog colony from ‘the ground down’ is challenging, but we took precautions before and after the release to help ensure that the original animals were successful in establishing themselves,” said Bill Van Pelt, the program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “It’s encouraging that the colony is already reproducing so early after the release.”
Biologists’ pre-release projections targeted a 10 to 20 percent survival rate for the originally released animals. Surveys conducted in June show the colony is at the upper end of that projection with 19 percent survival.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department reintroduced the species to southern Arizona to repopulate the animals to where they once existed nearly 50 years ago before they vanished from the state’s landscape.
As part of a state and national conservation effort, Game and Fish plans to re-establish the species in other sites in southern Arizona, as part of the department’s program to recover species that are declining or that have been extirpated from the state.
Through its partnerships with other public agencies, non-profit organizations and the science community, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s wildlife recovery program aims to prevent species from becoming endangered and conserve them in a more cost-effective manner. State-level involvement provides closer oversight of wildlife species on a day-to-day basis. Specific emphasis is placed on identifying and managing the wildlife and habitat of greatest conservation need, or those species that are no longer abundant and facing increasing threats from habitat degradation, disease, introduction of non-native species and climate change.
Adaptive management of these species helps ensure their continued presence in Arizona and protects the delicate balance of the ecosystem for future generations.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are a critical keystone species in Arizona, maintaining grasslands for other animals to forage and serving as important prey for eagles and hawks. They affect a number of other species, so their successful re-establishment would benefit the entire ecosystem by maintaining species diversity.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are approximately 15 inches long and weigh 2-3 pounds. These tan animals with black-tipped tails are highly social, living in coteries or family units. Family groups live close together to form larger colonies or towns. Human-related factors, including poisoning and habitat fragmentation, greatly reduced their numbers range-wide.