Top 5 Myths About Prairie Dogs

A myth is an unproven or false belief that is used to justify a social institution. Here are the top 5 myths about prairie dogs that are often used to justify their destruction.

5. Prairie dogs should be named ‘prairie rats’. Prairie dogs are a member of the rodent Order (Rodentia) along with rats, mice, rabbits, beaver and squirrels. They are within the squirrel family (Sciuridae) and are the largest and most social of ground squirrels. Rats are a member of a different family (Muridae). They have hairless tails and occupy different habitats than prairie dogs. Calling a prairie dog a ‘rat’ would be like calling a dog (Order Carnivora, Family Canidae) a ferret (Order Carnivora, Family Mustelidae).

4. Prairie dogs breed like rabbits. Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are the most widespread of the five prairie dog species. They breed only once a year during a short window of opportunity, when females are reproductively "receptive" for a few hours on one day of the year. Breeding takes place under ground during spring. Litter sizes average three pups, but can range from as few as one to as many as six. In the wild, prairie dogs usually live 3-4 years, so a female typically has 3-4 litters of pups during her lifetime. The eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), a common rabbit species, will have 3-5 litters per year with an average of 3-5 young per litter; thus averaging three times as many young as prairie dogs in a lifetime.


3. Prairie dogs cause diseases like plague. Prairie dogs are susceptible to several diseases, but none more so than plague. Plague is an exotic disease that is not native to North America; thus many wildlife species, particularly rodents, are susceptible and die very quickly. It is a myth that prairie dogs cause plague, transmit plague or are reservoirs of plague. Fleas are actually the vector, or transmitter, of plague. Human cases of plague in North America are very rare (an average of 7 cases is reported each year) and most often the disease is transmitted to humans by domestic cats.

2. There are too many prairie dogs. Prairie dogs once numbered in the billions and occupied 79 million acres in North America. In the 1900’s one colony in Texas measured 100 miles wide by 250 miles long and contained as many as 400,000,000 prairie dogs! Today there are approximately 2.4 million acres of prairie dogs, a 97% reduction in 100 years. Poisoning, plowing, plague and shooting have reduced prairie dogs to less than 3% of their historic numbers. The next time you take a road trip in the Great Plains count the number of prairie dog colonies you see and then multiply that number by 33. That’s approximately how many prairie dog colonies used to exist and supported black-footed ferrets, swift fox, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks and many other species of wildlife.


1. Livestock break their legs by stepping in prairie dog holes. Everyone knows that cows break their legs in prairie dog holes and that’s why we need to get rid of prairie dogs, right? Wrong. While cows may not be the most intelligent creatures on the planet, they are not dumb enough to step into a prairie dog burrow. In the years that we have worked on the prairies we have never once seen a cow with a broken leg and have spoken with many other biologists and ranchers who have yet to verify one instance. Along with the myth that bats are blind, this is possibly one of the most persistent myths about wildlife!

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