Conservation Research Laboratory: General Conservation Projects

Carol A. Coates

Suitability of Potential Habitat for the Extirpated Arizona Black-tailed Prairie Dog
  • Time Period: 2002 - 2005

  • Location: Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and Ft. Huachuca Military Base, AZ, USA Upper San Pedro River Valley, Ejido Morelos, Sonora, Mexico

Major Questions/Objectives: Study objectives were: 1) to determine if areas identified as potential re-introduction sites were suitable to support BTPD populations by comparing habitat characteristics with an occupied BTPD colony in northern Sonora, Mexico, 2) assess what pre-release management actions may be required in these areas, and 3) determine whether the presence of prairie dogs could potentially affect avian grassland species diversity in Arizona.

Major Findings: There was considerable overlap in habitat variables between the occupied BTPD colony in Sonora and potential re-introduction sites in Arizona. However, greater densities of grass, shrubs, and trees were found on the potential sites Arizona sites than on the occupied Sonora colony. Though grass species diversity did not differ between the Arizona and Sonora sites, grass species diversity was much lower on the Ft. Huachuca site, mainly due to large amounts of introduced Lehmann lovegrass. Management actions needed on the Arizona sites to render them more suitable for BTPD introduction include mowing grass and decreasing shrub and tree densities possibly through use of prescribed fire.

Using fixed-radius point counts, avian species diversity was determined to be higher on the Arizona sites that on the Sonora sites. The greater number of avian species on the Arizona sites can be attributed to higher shrub densities and wider range of physical and environmental features, such as ephemeral streams and mesquite thickets. The reintroduction of BTPD on the Arizona sites would likely alter plant species composition and structure and, therefore, the abundance of avian species, especially those species requiring trees and shrubs for nesting and foraging. However, avian species that require open spaces, such as shrikes and larks, or the presence of abandoned small mammal burrows for nesting, such as the burrowing owl, may increase on the Arizona sites due to BTPD habitat management practices.

Based on the vegetation characteristics, proximity to land protected from development, and historical presence of BTPD, the Arizona sites appear to be suitable locations for re-introduction of BTPD. Pre-release habitat management, such as mowing and prescribed fire, as well as a more fine-scale assessment of specific release sites (especially soil characteristics) will be required before attempting to return Black-tailed prairie dogs to southern Arizona.