Prairie dogs: Cute or cursed?

I’ll just come out and say it. I side with those who think prairie dogs are cute. 

Raw peanuts. A healthy protein for a prairie dog.

It isn’t that I want to start a range war or anything. For overgrown rodents, they *are* cute. They make funny sounds, live in holes (almost like hobbits) and they come out to play and look around.

Ranchers have a different view, which I can understand. But I’m a tourist, a traveler. I’m drawn to “cute.”

As you head west into the more arid plains states, you start seeing prairie dog towns. Lots of highways and parks have pullouts where you can stop and look and take photos. We did plenty of that.

I’m not one for commercial roadside animal attractions. Alligator farms? As my dad would have said, the steering wheel just won’t turn in that direction.

But I made an exception for one such attraction, the Badlands Ranch Store, just south of I-90 on South Dakota Highway 240, on the way to Interior, SD.

It’s a fairly standard tourist site, with t-shirts and tchotchkes, but also with unshelled raw peanuts for sale to feed the prairie dogs.

The critters are accustomed to tourists, not quite posing but not barking a warning as we approach. And they work for peanuts. Literally.

The guy at the store’s counter, who was selling the peanuts, said a vet will visit regularly to check on the prairie dogs. He said they are remarkably healthy.

In the wild, prairie dogs can harbor diseases such as plague. Yes, that one. Yersenia pestis.

The conservationists see benefits from prairie dogs, and the signage at roadside stops point out how they help by spreading various plants and providing a food source for a number of predators. Until pet those predators. 

To ranchers, prairie dogs are a pest, both in competition for food and in digging holes in which cattle might stumble and break a leg.

I grew up around cattle, which in no way makes me a rancher, but I do have an understanding that bovines are not the smartest critters on four legs. Still, if bison and elk and antelope can coexist with them, it stands to reason that cattle could do so as well. One rancher quoted in an article about prairie dogs said he had not lost an animal to a broken leg, but there was a big “YET” looming over that statement.

As for the competition for food, a Department of Agriculture study found, “Under conditions of average rainfall during the growing season in shortgrass steppe, prairie dog grazing reduces the amount but enhances the quality of the forage” available for cattle. 

And on the third hand, “average rainfall” out west looks like the worst drought imaginable to this former Arkansas 4-H beef grower. 

So to me, the prairie dog can play an important role on those arid rangelands. And so can cattle. It need not be an either/or equation.

Prairie dogs can be quite vocal, barking and making other sounds. They have different warnings for different predators.
In a sense, these critters are farmers, mowing down plants that obstruct a view of threats and “planting” seeds of plants they like to eat.
A common pose for prairie dogs, always on the alert.
I see you. Are you a threat? Do you have peanuts?
Play or pestering? You decide.
Maybe pestering.
Definitely pestering.
Another favorite pose of the prairie dog. All that play and eating makes one tired.
Snack time.
Home of the giant carnivorous prairie dog. Not really. I would assume this has been stolen and enlarged by another critter, or possibly grew by erosion.

5 thoughts on “Prairie dogs: Cute or cursed?

  1. We loved watching the prairie dogs and spent hours watching their antics. We spent zero hours watching cattle but are about to eat dinner so I guess I can see the importance of both.
    Safe travels! P & C


  2. I applaud your appreciation of the native wildlife out there. Definitely cute!

    You say you aren’t a rancher but were a beef producer. Does that mean your parents were ranchers?


    1. Mom and dad had about 80 acres at one point but it was only something on the side. Maybe 15-20 head of cattle and a truck patch. Back in the 30s and 40s they milked cows and sold cream, plus did corn and other market crops.


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