Project Spotlight: Prairie Dogs and Cattle

Cullom Simpson, Whitney Gann, Bonnie Warnock, and Louis A. Harveson
Cattle on p dog town Marathon Grassland Preserve

Cattle grazing on a prairie dog colony on The Nature Conservancy’s Marathon Grassland Preserve. The cattle were tracked via GPS collars to evaluate their movement relative to the prairie dog colonies.

The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) plays an important role in maintaining ecological integrity in western grasslands. A 2010 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inventory of prairie dog populations revealed that their range has decreased in the southern and western boundaries of their historical range within the Trans-Pecos region.

Potential competition between prairie dogs and cattle influences conservation and management strategies for these native herbivores. Understanding the relationship between cattle and prairie dogs is important for maintaining health in grasslands and guiding sound species management.

The objectives for this study included assessing spatial variation and trade-offs between forage quality and quantity in and out of prairie dog colonies, documenting seasonal variation in forage quality and quantity, and evaluating movement and grazing patterns of cattle in the prairie dog colonies. Results of the study indicate that plant species composition and biomass was similar on and off the prairie dog colonies, and crude protein levels were 10 percent higher on the prairie dog colonies compared to non-prairie dog colonies.

Movement data indicate that cattle graze within the prairie dog colonies during the growing seasons because of the highly nutritious regrowth promoted by prairie dogs’ foraging activity. This study provides evidence that landowners who seek to graze cattle on prairie dog colonies may see a mutually beneficial relationship in the form of positive vegetative feedback. The use of appropriate stocking rates and rotational grazing can be administered so that cattle have access to the prairie dog colonies when vegetation is at its highest nutritional value, while removing grazing pressure and competition between prairie dogs and cattle when nutritional value is lower.