The spatial dynamics of black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies affect the utility of these environments for other wildlife, including the endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). We used location data of active and inactive black-tailed prairie dog burrows to investigate colony structure, spatial distribution, and patch dynamics of two colonies at ferret recovery sites. We used kernel-based utilization distributions (UDs) of active and inactive burrows from two time periods (six and 11 years apart) as the basis for our analysis. Overall, the total extent of our prairie dog colonies changed little over time. However, within colonies, areas with high densities of active and inactive prairie dog burrows formed patches and the distribution of these patches changed in size, shape, and connectivity over time. At the Conata Basin site, high-density active burrow patches increased in total area covered while decreasing in connectivity as they shifted towards the perimeter of the colony over time. At the UL Bend site, we observed a similar but less pronounced shift over a longer period of time. At both sites, while at a large scale it appeared that prairie dogs were simply shifting areas of activity towards the perimeter of colonies and abandoning the center of colonies, we observed a dynamic interaction between areas of active and inactive burrows within colonies over time. Areas that previously contained inactive burrows tended to become active, and vice versa, leading us to hypothesize that there are shifts of activity areas within colonies over time as dictated by forage availability. The spatial dynamics we observed have important implications for techniques to estimate the suitability of ferret habitat and for the management of prairie dog colonies. First, fine-scale techniques for measuring prairie dog colonies that account for their patchy spatial distribution are needed to better assess ferret habitat suitability. Second, the shift of high-density areas of active prairie dog burrows, likely associated with changes in vegetation, suggests that through the management of vegetation we might be able to indirectly improve habitat for ferrets. Finally, we found that prairie dog distributions within a colony are a naturally dynamic process and that management strategies should consider the long-term value of both active and inactive areas within colonies.
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