Reintroductions of prairie dogs given another boost

PHOENIX - Biologists recently released 80 black-tailed prairie dogs captured from New Mexico into two reintroduction sites in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area near Sonoita, Ariz., to augment populations from previous releases.

The reintroductions aim to return these animals to where they once existed in Arizona.

Forty-one of the prairie dogs were released at a site on Bureau of Land Management land in the conservation area, following up on the release of 27 animals there on Sept. 21. Biologists at that time determined that a supplementation would provide more optimal numbers to help that population become self-sustaining. 

An additional 39 prairie dogs were released at another site on state land in the conservation area to supplement a release of 74 animals there in October 2008.

Once the populations at these sites are stable, Game and Fish hopes to re-establish the species in up to four additional sites in southern Arizona to contribute toward the national conservation effort and preclude the need for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

"With these 80 animals, Arizona is one step further to establishing self-sustaining colonies in the Las Cienegas Conservation Area," said Eric Gardner, nongame branch chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "The department will continue to translocate these animals in order to reach statewide goals for the conservation of black-tailed prairie dogs."

As with the other releases, acclimation cages were used to prevent the animals from dispersing too quickly upon release and to allow them to adjust to their new environment. In time, the animals will burrow themselves out of the acclimation cages and be free to establish an underground network of tunnels. This release and the one on Sept. 21 were a collaborative effort between Game and Fish and the BLM. The October 2008 release teamed the efforts of Game and Fish, the State Land Department, and volunteer support for the site preparations by Sky Island Alliance, Animal Defense League and the Sierra Club

Black-tailed prairie dogs play a key ecological role by helping maintain grasslands for other animals to forage and serving as important prey for species such as eagles and hawks.