Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) were greatly reduced in number and range in the last century, which is of conservation concern because their activities promote habitat heterogeneity and enhance biodiversity in prairie ecosystems. Based on their behavioral ecology, we hypothesized that prairie dogs would expand into areas adjacent to active colonies where woody shrubs and other visual obstructions were reduced, and designed an experimental study to assess this possibility at Theodore National Park, North Dakota. A combination of controlled burns and brush removal was applied to 2-ha experimental plots at 3 different prairie dog study colonies where adjacent control plots were left untreated. Systematic behavioral observations and periodic colony mapping revealed a strongly disproportionate use of experimental compared to control plots by prairie dogs over a 1.5-year period. More prairie dogs ventured into experimental plots than into control plots and there were an average of 335 new burrows and a mean 50.3% expansion into experimental plot areas compared to an average of 69 new burrows and a mean 1.6% expansion in control plots. Our results indicate that it may be possible to facilitate restoration of black-tailed prairie dogs by habitat manipulations, ultimately benefiting multiple native species in prairie ecosystems.
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