Most people think of them as cute, especially when they get on their hind legs and bark, hence, their name. But if you live west of the Mississippi River in cattle country, your thoughts probably lean more toward how to get rid of prairie dogs in your backyard.
Description of the Prairie Dog
The prairie dog’s name is a misnomer. It is actually a burrowing rodent, not unlike the familiar ground squirrel. There are five species in its genus. They include:
- White-tailed prairie dog
- Black-tailed prairie dog
- Utah prairie dog
- Gunnison prairie dog
- Mexican prairie dog
The behavior and natural history of all five are similar, with geographical differences in range and diet. They are primarily herbivores, feeding on the grasses and forbs within their territories. One prairie dog can eat up to 2 pounds per week.
Prairie dogs are social animals, living in colonies called either coteries or clans, depending on the species. Each town averages about 12 animals per family with some numbering up to 20 or more groups. The really interesting thing about these rodents is their burrowing system.
The burrows are elaborate with several chambers and multiple entrances at varying depths between 3 and 6 feet underground. They sprawl about 15 feet into the surrounding area for each family with visible mounds of bare earth marking their locations.
Prairie dogs have a sophisticated vocalization system of chirks and bark for communicating among themselves and warning other colony residents of danger, particularly humans and other predators such as hawks, owls, and foxes.
Understanding their behavior is vital for knowing how to get rid of prairie dogs in your backyard.
Human-Prairie Dog Conflicts
The main rub exists with cattle ranchers who say that prairie dogs compete with their herds for the same foods. The situation is further complicated by the habitat encroachment. As more people move into prairie dog habitat, more animals branch out into agricultural lands.
That puts crops in jeopardy, especially in towns with hundreds of burrows—and thousands of animals.
Some farmers also claim that the many holes that prairie dogs dig put their cattle and horses at risk of injuries. In any case, the damage is evident and the reactions, understandable.
The other side of the coin involves ecology. Prairie dogs eat a lot of vegetation. The problem is that when they clear an area, invasive plants and grasses can come in their place, lowering the nutritional value of the food source for wildlife and the cattle.
Things to Know Before Getting Rid of Prairie Dogs
Unlike other pests, the situation with prairie dogs isn’t as cut-and-dried. There are some significant hurdles to launching an eradication program. For one, the federal government has a say in whether you can take any action at all.
Both the Mexican and Utah prairie dogs have listed animals under the Endangered Species Act. That means taking either one is illegal. But, there are still issues even with the other more abundant species.
The Foundation of the Ecosystem
The prairie dog and its lifestyle are the quintessential representation of a food web in action, with this rodent the star attraction or keystone species. Their burrows and collective towns play a supporting role.
Prairie dogs don’t exist in isolation. Abandoned burrows provide habitat for a myriad of other species such as rabbits, ground birds, and rodents. And, then, there are the animals themselves.
Prairie dogs are an essential food source for other wildlife such as the protected golden eagle and the endangered black-footed ferret. The latter is a fascinating success story for a species once thought to be extinct.
In 1991, the US Fish and Wildlife Service stepped to the plate and began a reintroduction program to save the weasel. Over 1,400 animals exist today in states such as South Dakota and Wyoming.
Interestingly, the federal government also considered listing the black-tailed prairie dog when its numbers starting decreasing. Today, you can legally hunt prairie dogs in 11 states.
How to Get Rid of Prairie Dogs in Your Backyard
Getting a pest infestation under control is a multi-level task that can take several years to manage. That’s the bad news. The reason is that prairie dogs are prolific, having up to four young per litter. That means hunters would have to take over 75 percent to make a dent in the population.
For you, that means you’ll have an ongoing battle. However, we have a plan for that too.
Trapping and Hunting
Both of these methods are effective, to varying degrees. The problems you face are the prairie dog’s communication system and its burrows. As we mentioned earlier, there are multiple entrances to their tunnels. That makes it infinitely harder to home in on where you’ll see them at any given time.
If there aren’t a lot of animals, you might have some success with traps. But, again, there are several places you’ll need to cover. Bear in mind that you’re dealing with an intelligent foe as evidenced by their many vocalizations.
We’d suggest roughing up the live trap so that the metal isn’t as shiny. You should set it up with the door open for a few days to give the impression that it’s safe. You can bait it with the grasses and forbs the prairie dog is taking from your yard since you know it likes those plants.
You’ll likely need a permit from your state DNR or department of conservation. You’ll also find regulations about where you can release the captured animals. If you live near black-footed ferret territory, it’s probably a likely option for a release site.
A myriad of laws and regulations await if you live in a state where you can shoot prairie dogs. On the positive side, these areas often view these rodents as pests too, with higher bag limits.
If you’re not keen on doing the deed, you may also be able to lease your land to a hunter that will take care of your pest problem and even pay you for the privilege.
Chemical Control of the Prairie Dogs
A lot of red flags go up when you start talking about poisons and rodenticides. And for good reason. There is a risk of hurting non-targeted wildlife and pets.
You also have to consider the predator species like hawks and owls. These toxic pesticides can kill them if the ingredients build up in their bodies to a lethal amount.
All of this said they are effective.
Cautions When Using Poisons
It is imperative to use products specifically labeled for use with prairie dogs. It’s against federal law to do otherwise. It’s also the practical and humane thing to do. Underdosing them won’t take care of the problem, and it’s just plain cruel to sicken them.
We strongly urge you to check on the status of black-footed ferrets in your area too to avoid running afoul with the feds.
There are also the common-sense precautions about keeping the pesticides out of the reach of small children and pets. And you must use them precisely as indicated with the instructions. We’d suggest reading all the safety measures too in case of accidental exposure before using them.
Some areas permit landowners using rodenticides to control nuisance wildlife. However, you’ll likely find there are many restrictions about what you can use, when you can apply it, and where your property abuts private or public land.
Types of Rodenticides
The first-generation poisons are anticoagulants. Essentially, the animal bleeds to death internally. They work but not right away. Second-generation products like bromethalin are quicker for getting the problem under control fast.
Another option is a class of rodenticides that include zinc phosphide. When the animal ingests it, the ingredients combine with the acid in their stomach and the fluids in their bodies to create a poisonous phosphine gas that kills them.
You may find that the only permitted poisons you can use are federally restricted use ones. That means you’d have to have an applicator license specific to the pest control you’re doing. It’s not one that you buy, but instead something you get by passing an exam.
The advantage of using this method is that you can hit all entrances to the prairie dog’s burrow with minimal contact with the animals themselves. However, you still need to do the essential follow-up of collecting the carcasses and dispatching the dying animals.
Some landowners resort to tossing USDA gas cartridges down the entrances of the burrow to fumigate the tunnels and get rid of the pests. It’s best to start at the hole where you’ve seen an animal enter and plug up any of the adjacent ones before you begin.
The lit cartridge fills the burrow with carbon monoxide. You must exercise caution when using them since it’s an open flame that can burn any dry materials around it. The thing to remember is that it will burn quickly. Make sure the other entrances are blocked before lighting the fuse.
Aluminum phosphide cartridges are highly toxic, and therefore, effective. However, many areas restrict its use because it’s so dangerous. You’ll likely find there are numerous restrictions about where you can use it if you’re close to any other private residence or public place.
While it is another hands-off method, gassing is expensive, especially considering the fact that you’ll likely have to do it more than once. Then, there is the aftermath and that unpleasantness. Overall, it’s a lot of work that is best used with other control methods.
How to Get Rid of Prairie Dogs in Your Backyard with Deterrents
This option comes in many forms. The overriding advantage that many products offer is that the risk to you is minimal versus using pesticides. The object is to make your yard as inhospitable as possible to encourage the colony to move elsewhere.
We’ll say right off that gimmicks like ultrasonic devices and predator urine products won’t solve the problem. They aren’t effective unless you’re the one selling them.
You might have some luck with coyote decoys for a short time. Motion-sensing alerts may help until the prairie dogs learn to recognize that they aren’t a threat.
Prevention of Future Problems
Following up with other more persuasive methods is essential no matter what else you do to manage the prairie dog control. The best thing about them is that they pose no risks to you or your family.
Prairie dogs need an open space around their burrows to keep track of predators and other threats. You can make your yard less attractive to them by making it difficult to see around them.
Planting tall grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, and other native plants will obscure their view and make your property seem less inviting. Bear in mind that they take a few years to get established, so this task is part of your long-range plan.
We’d suggest leveling the entrance mounds first. The prairie dogs create elevated areas around the holes to guard against flooding. The bare patch of earth will provide an ideal start for the native grasses, the roots of which will penetrate as deep or even deeper than the tunnels underground.
You can take interfering with their view to the next level with visual barriers like a planted row of arborvitae or other trees and shrubs that will also provide some welcome privacy in your landscaping scheme.
The Final Word
We sympathize with you if you’re dealing with these burrowing pests. Their complex burrows pose a challenge that makes the task of controlling them more difficult. However, if you think like a prairie dog, you’re ahead of the game.
Shooting and trapping can offer temporary relief. While effective, we think poisons are a last resort because of the risks to people, pets, and other wildlife. There are also legal concerns that all of these methods carry that make them unsuitable in some cases.
When considering how to get rid of prairie dogs in your backyard, make it tough for them to make a living. They’ll move on to higher ground and room with a view.