Prairie dogs can be a source of frustration to livestock producers in Wyoming because they compete with cattle for food. But new research from the University of Wyoming shows that the animals may also improve the quality of grass that is available.
The researchers found that grasses within prairie dog colonies were richer in nutrients, and remained high-quality later into the growing season. By clipping the stalks as they graze, these small mammals cause grasses to be more palatable as they grow back. The relationship between grazing and forage quality may have been important to past ecosystems, when prairie dogs and bison were both common on the landscape.
Lauren Connell, the graduate student in charge of the project, says that she wants to acknowledge ranchers' frustrations with prairie dogs while also presenting reliable data.
She says that past attempts to get rid of prairie dogs haven’t worked well, and it may be better to study the benefits of allowing the two species to somehow coexist.
“Prairie dogs are here, and they’re a natural part of the ecosystem, and so the more we can find a way to leverage their relationship with other animals on the range, such as cattle, the more benefit it is to everyone,” Connell said.
Connell’s next move is to study how prairie dogs affect the number of cattle that can be sustained on a pasture. She plans to have her results published next year.