Sunday night’s Wild Kingdom on Animal Planet featured the research of Con Slobodchikoff, who has been studying prairie dog language for decades. Con demonstrated how prairie dogs learn different calls for various types of predators (hawks, coyotes, badgers). Con did the research at Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch–a place now open for animal tourists who want to see the chatty prairie dog towns, too.
Westerners, particularly ranchers, are not big fans of prairie dogs. They fear grazing competition or cattle tripping in their holes. So they pick off the smart little rodents for target practice or in huge hunting competitions. As Wild Kingdom showed, the U.S.D.A.’s Wildlife Services (and its predecessors) has been exterminating them from ranchland for no good reason. That’s not just ancient cowboy history: in 2009 (the latest year figures are available), the USDA killed 12,700 prairie dogs, including 10,000 black-tailed prairie dogs. At the same time the Fish and Wildlife Service was deciding whether they are endangered or threatened. (The FWS decided against protection, though Cynomys ludovicianus only occupies about 2.1-2.5% of their historic range and many critters, including the endangered black-footed ferret, depend on them for food).
Animal tourists from outside the region, however, can’t get enough of their charming little antics. But if you ask locals where to see them, you’re likely just to get the unhelpful “everywhere.”
So it’s especially nice to see that Ted Turner’s ranch specifically highlights prairie dogs. Working to restore the black-footed ferret (which eats prairie dogs), Turner increased the prairie dog habitat from 500 acres to 8,000 acres at Vermejo Park. Turner himself gave a shout-out to prairie dogs when he announced in National Geographic Adventure the 590,000 ranch, a candidate to be a national park, was opening to the public in 2009: “You can stand alone on a 13,000 foot summits in Sangre De Cristos and look down all the way to the prairie,” he said. “You might run into see bison, elk, bears, mountain lion or prairie dog.”
Wildlife tours are relatively new to Vermejo Ranch, which is more known for supporting an enormous herd of purebred bison. Hunters and anglers have been visiting for a while, paying up to $14,500 for an elk hunt with a private guide and 90% success rating. The wildlife trips are expensive ($450 per day, per person, including room, meals, horseback riding, skeet and sporting clay shooting, as well as a custom designed trip).
BONUS SPECIES: Even most wildlife watchers don’t come for the prairie dogs. Vermejo has 2,500 bison in the Castle Rock herd. Because they’re one of three genetically pure herds, they typically don’t end up as bison burgers, but just get to reproduce to restore the species. You’re guaranteed to see one of their 8,000 elk. You may also see black-footed ferrets, pronghorn, black bears and sometimes even badgers or mountain lions are seen here.
Check out the other work of Con Slobodchikoff
Where to SEE BUFFALO, Bison and Wisent
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