The key to the Cana­dian Prairies


A key­stone species is one which sup­ports a sig­nif­i­cant sum of its home ecosys­tem, not un­like a load-bear­ing wall in your house. Re­move any old wall and the struc­ture will sur­vive, but de­stroy that which bears load, and col­lapse en­sues.

The prairie dog is such a key­stone, its ac­tions in­te­gral to the health of the mixed grass prairies defin­ing Canada’s cen­tre-west. Their bur­rows, ac­tive or aban­doned, pro­vide habi­tat to in­nu­mer­able other species such as the en­dan­gered bur­row­ing owl and black-footed fer­ret. Their graz­ing habits keep lo­cal grasses short, young and fresh, the pre­ferred food of plains bi­son, among oth­ers.

Re­move this key­stone and our mixed grass prairies be­come a frac­tion of their for­mer selves, hin­der­ing myr­iad species which at one time lorded over the land­scape. Yet, in spite of their eco­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, prairie dogs are rare in Canada. The only place they can be re­li­ably found in the whole of our na­tion is Grass­lands Na­tional Park, Sask.

It’s dif­fi­cult to find a re­gion more alien to this hum­ble Mar­itimer than the ex­pan­sive, si­lent, windswept wows of this na­tional park, punc­tu­ated by ex­cep­tional views un­ob­structed with trees, and wildlife on dis­play, made docile by dis­tance. The prairie dogs, how­ever, must be seen up close.

There are 18 prairie dog colonies in and around this park, which is to say, there are 18 prairie dog colonies in the coun­try, and the first one I came across strad­dled a dirt road with mul­ti­ple mounds. Th­ese small crea­tures are, quite sim­ply, adorable.

In groups of one or two, they hug their mounds, graz­ing hastily, ready to van­ish down­ward at a mo­ment’s no­tice. Stud­ies have demon­strated their com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but as a vis­i­tor, you only hear their alarm call, a rapid warn­ing on re­peat from ev­ery in­di­vid­ual you hap­pen to be near. To­gether th­ese en­thu­si­as­tic sen­tries de­fend an un­der­ground kingdom. Step near and re­ceive their un­di­vided at­ten­tion. Step closer still and they dis­ap­pear.

Since the com­ing of agri­cul­ture to the Cana­dian prairies, th­ese mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures have lost some­thing like 98 per cent of their his­toric range, which puts the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of th­ese few sur­viv­ing colonies into sharp fo­cus.

There are two loom­ing dan­gers to the prairie dogs of Grass­lands Na­tional Park, nei­ther of which are eas­ily con­trolled. The first is drought, sti­fling the re­growth of grass in this parched ecosys­tem and the sec­ond is syl­vatic plague. This ail­ment has the po­ten­tial to wipe out en­tire colonies and is trans­mit­ted by flees, so once a month th­ese prob­lem­atic in­sects are tested by Parks Canada staff and if any prove pos­i­tive with plague, steps are taken to kill th­ese flees colony­wide.

The colony in which I stood was among the small­est of Grass­lands, and yet see­ing one prairie dog meant see­ing dozens, if not hun­dreds. The best es­ti­mate of their Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion comes from a 2,000 es­ti­mate, ref­er­enced by Parks Canada staff, putting them be­tween 6,000 and 9,000. It was ex­tra­or­di­nary to me how much of our na­tional bio­di­ver­sity re­lies on th­ese few king­doms, and how much at­ten­tion they re­ceive as a con­se­quence. While I was dis­tracted by my cam­era, a pair of bi­son lum­bered into this colony to graze its tai­lored veg­e­ta­tion and at-risk song­birds made them­selves heard over the wind. Later that day I re­turned to see my first and only bur­row­ing owl.

It was a priv­i­lege to see th­ese mod­est bur­row­ers at work, but dis­heart­en­ing to see them so few and so re­stricted. For now, how­ever, it’s enough to know they’re safe.

Zack Met­calfe is a free­lance con­ser­va­tion jour­nal­ist, au­thor and writer based in the Mar­itimes.

Zack Met­calfe

Shown above is a prairie dog in Grass­lands Na­tional Park, Sask.

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