The prairie dog has been around for thousands of years, although little has been recorded of its lifestyle until recent history. Most Americans have heard of the little animal but have never seen one or known what it does and why.
Once the most abundant mammals in North America, Prairie dogs have lost 95 percent of their population due to hunting, poisoning and habitat loss. Prairie Dog Town is helping to preserve the population that is still in the Lubbock area.
Prairie Dog Town is located inside Mackenzie Park in Lubbock, overlooking Meadowbrook Golf Course. There is no admission charge, and it is open to the public year round from dawn to dusk daily.
“Prairie Dog Town was started by the original park superintendent for the Lubbock Park Department,” explained Ronny Gallagher, the park operations manager for the City of Lubbock. “As a way to try to preserve that portion of what they thought was a vanishing part of the Lubbock area prairie.”
Prairie Dog Town was established in Mackenzie Park in the early 1930’s by Kennedy Clapp and his wife. When the government’s poisoning program became in effect, they were alarmed at what might happen to the prairie dog population.
When it was first started as the first protected prairie dog colony of its kind, there were only four dogs and two burrows.
“Every year when the pups are born, of course it changes drastically, and then they go out into the rest of the community and the rest of the area,” Gallagher explained about the current population. “And so we never have a clue as far as exactly how many are in there.”
Prairie dogs have a low rate of reproduction compared with other small mammals. They become reproductively viable at age 2, breed only once a year, and the average litter size is three to four pups. Their lifespan is typically four to five years in the wild.
The prairie dog colony was moved to the current location when Mackenzie Park became a state park in 1935.
Within five years at its current location, Prairie Dog Town became a tourist attraction for the city of Lubbock. The 2004 Lubbock Convention and Visitors Bureau tourism study showed Prairie Dog Town as the fifth most visited attraction in Lubbock by visitors from outside the city.
“It’s year round, we have people driving in,” Gallagher said. “People will be running down the interstate from Amarillo. They’ll drive down just to see the prairie dogs. It happens all the time.”
The City of Lubbock’s website provides a Prairie Dog fact sheet, along with a scanned booklet “Our Comic friend the Prairie Dog and the story of Prairie Dog Town, Texas!”
In 2004, Prairie Dog Town had a major renovation with funding from Premier Golf, the management company for the City of Lubbock’s Meadowbrook Golf Course. The renovation to Prairie Dog Town included a pavilion and viewing area, interpretive signage, sidewalks, a new parking area with a turnaround and bus parking, perimeter fencing, and ADA accessibility.
The prairie dogs dig elaborate systems of burrows in flat prairie lands to create “towns” that are comprised of many different tunnels. The burrows are easily identified because of the large mound of dirt surrounding the entrance, providing a vantage point to spot approaching predators as well as flood protection.
The burrow is dug straight down, or at a slight angle, for 12 to 20 feet, where it then runs horizontally in a ‘T’ or ‘L’ shape for another 10 to 15 feet. Ascending shafts and air vents are dug off this tunnel with one or more terminating in well camouflaged emergency exits that are20 to 20 feet from the main entrance. One shaft usually stops just short of the surface with its terminus enlarged. Various chambers branch off the burrow, one or more bedrooms with wall-to-wall grass carpet, toilet, nursery, dry room, turnaround room and pantry. The conning tower of the burrow is the “listening room” or “barking room,” located about six feet below the entrance.
The prairie dog is a social creature with others of its kind. It lives in colonies, or towns, that consist of dozens or hundreds of individual, adjacent burrows. Each burrow is occupied by single family of two adults and several pups who go about their daily routines. At one time, West Texas contained thousands of prairie dog towns with a total estimated population of just under one billion. One town covered 37,00 acres and housed 400 million prairie dogs.
Prairie dogs are primarily vegetarian, living on grasses, herbs and weeds. Occasionally, they will supplement their diet with grasshoppers, beetles, spiders and other small insects. Like their cousin, the desert rat, prairie dogs do not drink water but get needed body moisture from their food.
“Like most wild animals, we cannot feed them,” Gallagher said. “They fend for themselves. And the reasoning being when you feed a population like that, you create an artificial food source. So you’ll create an artificial population load, and then when that artificial food source disapears then you have mass starvation.”
The Black-tailed Prairie Dog is a “keystone species,” defined as one whose presence and activities are critical to the entire ecosystem. They create an environment around their colonies that provide homes and shelter for a myriad of creatures.
The Black-tailed Prairie Dog also is a critical food source for a number of animals. Since Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are the only prairie dog species, and one of only a few rodents that do not hibernate in the winter, they are vitally important winter food sources for prairie predators. Biologists have concluded that nine prairie species are dependent on prairie dogs and an additional 20 species opportunistically take advantage of prairie dog colonies. A total of 117 species have some relationship with prairie dog colonies. Those species that are considered dependent on prairie dogs include the Burrowing owl, the Golden eagle, the Ferruginous hawk and the Black-footed ferret.
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies stated in their Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Memorandum of Understanding in 1999 that: “All member affected agencies agree that Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are an important natural component of the short to mid-grass ecosystem. As such, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs serve as an indicator of the overall health of this important habitat type in western North America. Further, the presence and abundance of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs reflects humankind’s commitment to maintaining all natural components of the short to mid-grass ecosystem so that all uses of this type are sustainable over time.”