Key to the Canadian Prairies

A keystone species is one which supports a significant sum of its home ecosystem, not unlike a load-bearing wall in you house. Remove any old wall and the structure will survive, but destroy that which bears load, and collapse ensues.

The Prairie dog is just such a keystone, its actions integral to the health of the mixed grass prairies defining Canada’s centre-west. Their burrows, active or abandoned, provide habitat to innumerable other species such as the endangered Burrowing owl and Black-footed ferret. Their grazing habits keep local grasses short, young and fresh, the preferred food of Plains bison among others.

Remove this keystone and our mixed grass prairies become a fraction of their former selves, hindering myriad species which at one time lorded over the landscape. Yet in spite of their ecological significance, Prairie dogs are rare in Canada. The only place they can be reliably found, in the whole of our nation, is Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

It’s difficult to find a region more alien to this humble Maritimer than the expansive, silence, windswept wows of this national park, punctuated by exceptional views unobstructed with trees, and wildlife on display, made docile by distance. The Prairie dogs, however, must be seen up close.

There are 18 Prairie dog colonies in and around this park, which is to say, there are 18 Prairie dog colonies in the country, and the first one I came across straddled a dirt road with multiple mounds. These small creatures are, quite simply, adorable.

In groups of one or two they hug their mounds, grazing hastily, ready to vanish downward at a moment’s notice. Studies have demonstrated their complex communication but as a visitor, you only hear their alarm call, a rapid warning on repeat from every individual you happen to be near. Together these enthusiastic sentries defend an underground kingdom. Step near and receive their undivided attention. Step closer still and they disappear.

Since the coming of agriculture to the Canadian prairies these magnificent creatures have lost something like 98 per cent of their historic range, which puts the vulnerability of these few surviving colonies into sharp focus.

There are two looming dangers to the Prairie dogs of Grasslands National Park, neither of which are easily controlled. The first is drought, stifling the regrowth of grass in this parched ecosystem, and the second is sylvatic plague. This ailment has the potential to wipe out entire colonies and is transmitted by flees, so once a month these problematic insects are tested by Parks Canada staff and if any prove positive with plague, steps are taken to kill these flees colony wide.

The colony in which I stood was among the smallest of Grasslands, and yet seeing one Prairie dog meant seeing dozens, if not hundreds. The best estimate of their Canadian population comes from a 2000 estimate referenced by Parks Canada staff, putting them between 6-9 thousand. It was extraordinary to me how much of our national biodiversity relies on these few kingdoms, and how much attention they receive as a consequence. While I was distracted by my camera, a pair of bison lumbered into this colony to graze its tailored vegetation and at-risk songbirds made themselves heard over the wind. Later that day I returned to see my first and only Burrowing owl.

It was a privilege to see these modest burrowers at work, but disheartening to see them so few and so restricted. For now, however, it’s enough to know they’re safe.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the Halifax Citizen.

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