UW-Led Study Details Impact of Prairie Dog Plague Die-Off on Other Species

by the University of Wyoming
January 05, 2023

When an outbreak of sylvatic plague decimated black-tailed prairie dog numbers in the Thunder Basin National Grassland in 2017, researchers saw an opportunity for a “natural experiment” to explore the impact of the rodents’ die-off on the plants and other wildlife in that area of northeast Wyoming.

What they learned was that the decline in prairie dogs, along with abnormally high precipitation in 2018, combined to bring about dramatic ecosystem changes. The findings highlight the serious conservation challenges caused by boom-and-bust disease cycles in remaining Great Plains grasslands, the researchers say.

“We found that prairie dogs play a critical role for associated vegetation and wildlife communities in this system, creating important grassland habitat for numerous species while serving as prey for several predators,” says Courtney Duchardt, an assistant professor in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management who led the research as a University of Wyoming Ph.D. student in ecology. “Our research highlights how precipitation can interact with disease-induced loss of a keystone species to induce drastic and rapid shifts in wildlife communities.”

The research is published in Ecological Applications, a journal of the Ecological Society of America that focuses on applications of ecological science to environmental problems. Others involved were Professor Jeff Beck, Associate Professor Derek Scasta and former graduate student Lauren Connell, all of UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management; Ana Davidson, of Colorado State University; Jacob Hennig, of the U.S. Geological Survey; David Augustine and Lauren Porensky, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and David Pellatz, of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association.

Keep reading: https://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2023/01/uw-led-study-details-impact-of-prairie-dog-plague-die-off-on-other-species.html

Read the Ecological Applications paper: https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eap.2712