Some years ago, I worked for the Boulder County Parks & Open Space Department trapping and “relocating” prairie dogs in rural Boulder County. Due to urban sprawl and predator displacement that took place far and wide, the species had become overabundant and was considered by those who managed the lands at best a nuisance, and at worst a carrier of deadly disease. The prairie dog problem wasn’t unique to the Front Range of Colorado as many other states had their issues. In a collaborative research project by faculty at Front Range Community College in Colorado and the University of Wyoming, researchers looked at the benefits of using satellite imagery to monitor black-tailed prairie dog colonies and their movements.
Based on past research, the scientists knew that the colonies were not distributed randomly, so they hoped to predict future sites of inhabitation by employing imagery from Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper. With knowledge of current colonization patterns that were heavily dependent on soil type and slope, the researchers hoped to find potential relocation sites that could aid in impending management techniques. The researchers developed four hypotheses to test, colonies would be found more often (1) on shallow slopes; (2) close to mixed-grass prairies; (3) on deep, well-drained soils; and (4) that colonies would have a lower Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) than adjacent grassland. NDVI is an assessment of plant health that utilizes the red and near-infrared bands of satellite and/or aerial imagery.
This study focused on the Thunder Basin National Grassland and was composed of two study areas: an inner area of 550 square kilometers (sq km), and an outer area of nearly 3,000 sq km. Their results showed that the prairie dogs preferred an area with no slope provided there was minimal risk of flooding and with mixed-grass prairies in close proximity; wooded and shrub covered areas were the least preferred for colonization. Prairie dogs preferred soils that were either sandy or clay loams.
It is the researcher’s opinion that this type of analysis can be applied to numerous roaming species, and ultimately would allow for better management practices through anticipation of resource and land fluctuation. Further consideration should also be given to the prevalence of disease in colonies and its impact on changing colonization patterns.The researchers suggest two implications for future land management practices: (1) that managers focus on cultivation of lands not likely to be overtaken by the rodent; and (2) if prairie dog-desired lands are utilized, that they install protective barriers around areas that are most likely to be chosen for inhabitation.