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Post-translocation dynamics of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus): A successful conservation and human-wildlife conflict mitigation tool

Cite this dataset

Guernsey, Noelle C.; Lendrum, Patrick E.; Krank, Lindsey Sterling; Grassel, Shaun M. (2023). Post-translocation dynamics of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus): A successful conservation and human-wildlife conflict mitigation tool [Dataset]. Dryad.


Prairie dogs have declined by 98% throughout their range in the grasslands of North America. Translocations have been used as a conservation tool to reestablish colonies of this keystone species and to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Understanding the behavioral responses of prairie dogs to translocation is of utmost importance to enhance the persistence of the species and for species that depend on them, including the critically endangered black-footed ferret. In 2017 and 2018, we translocated 658 black-tailed prairie dogs on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in central South Dakota, USA, a black-footed ferret recovery site. Here, we describe and evaluate the effectiveness of translocating prairie dogs into augered burrows and soft released within presumed coteries to reestablish colonies in previously occupied habitat. We released prairie dogs implanted with passive integrated transponders (PIT tags) and conducted recapture events approximately 1-month and 1-year post-release. We hypothesized that these methods would result in a successful translocation and that prairie dogs released as coteries would remain close to where they were released because of their highly social structure. In support of these methods leading to a successful translocation, 69% of marked individuals were captured 1-month post-release, and 39% were captured 1-year post-release. Furthermore, considerable recruitment was observed with 495 unmarked juveniles captured during the 1-year post-release trapping event, and the reestablished colony had more than doubled in area by 2021. Contrary to our hypothesis, yet to our knowledge a novel finding, there was greater initial movement within the colony 1-month post-release than expected based on recapture locations compared to published average territory size; however, 1-year after release most recaptured individuals were captured within the expected territory size when compared to capture locations 1-month post-release. This research demonstrates that while translocating prairie dogs may be socially disruptive initially, it is an important conservation tool.


Translocation, processing, and release

We translocated prairie dogs from undesirable locations to two inactive prairie dog colonies (Charlie’s and Charlie’s South) that had previously experienced plague events within the Fort Hale Bottom prairie dog complex at the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation in central South Dakota, USA. At the time of capture, prairie dogs were weighed to a tenth of a gram and implanted with a passive integrated transponder (PIT: AVID® Identification Systems, Norco, CA) tag for individual identification. Sex and age classes (juvenile and adult) were recorded as determined by weight and appearance (Hoogland 1995). Prairie dogs were released into burrows to maintain the coteries of the source colonies. The spatial orientation of neighboring coteries from the source colonies was also maintained. Groups typically contained 1 adult male and the remaining individuals were adult females and juveniles of both sexes.


To sample the population at the release site; animals were recaptured at approximately 1 month and 1-year post-translocation at both release sites to determine retention and to determine if, and how far, animals moved from where they were initially released. The prairie dogs translocated in 2017 (Charlie’s colony) were recaptured September 26–28, 2017, at 37–39 days (recapture 1) and August 16–18, 2018, at 361–363 days (recapture 2) post-initial release. The prairie dogs translocated in 2018 (Charlie’s South colony) were recaptured August 23–25, 2018, at 40–42 days (recapture 1) and August 21–23, 2019, 405–407 days (recapture 2) post initial release. Traps with individual identification tags were set in a 10 m x 10 m grid across the entire colony where active prairie dog presence was visible. All trap locations within the grid were recorded. Captured animals were weighed, scanned for PIT tag identification number, marked with permanent marker, and released into the nearest burrow. All individuals that did not have PIT tag identifiers were marked with permanent marker, and sex and age were recorded. During subsequent trapping days, traps that contained marked individuals were released immediately. 


Distance moved post-release

To understand if prairie dogs remained within their coterie as released or if they moved within the colony and established new territories, we measured the distance from where each prairie dog was initially released to their 1-month location and from their 1-month location to their 1-year location in ArcGIS v10.7.1. Furthermore, we compared the average distance between recapture locations to the diameter of small (0.05 ha), average (0.32 ha), and large (1.01 ha) territory sizes (Hoogland 2006b) and identified the percent of prairie dogs that were recaptured within the given territory size across each time step. We used Chi-square goodness-of-fit tests to determine if the proportion of prairie dogs that moved in each territory size differed between the Charlie’s and Charlie’s South colonies. We assumed that the distance between release and 1-month locations and 1-month and 1-year locations could provide a representation of the territory size of their coteries.

Effect of coterie dynamics on retention

To determine if the number of individuals in a coterie and the age structure and sex composition of the coterie influenced retention, a binary response variable, we used generalized linear mixed models (GLMM; Jamil et al. 2013) in Program R statistical base package (R Development Core Team, Version 3.6.3 2020). Individuals were released with the coterie they were captured with, therefore, we included coterie as random effect to account for potential effects of social structure that might differ by coterie and not be explained by our predictor variables. In addition to sex (male or female), age (juvenile or adult), and the group size of the coterie, we also included weight (g), burrow release type (single or double openings), and release site (Charlie’s or Charlie’s South) as fixed effect predictor variables to account for additional variation. We also created a combined variable of sex and age (adult male or female and juvenile male or female). We did not allow these combined age-sex variables to enter the same model as age or sex because of the inherent correlation between them. No other variables were correlated at > 0.6. Rather than run all possible model combinations which can result in overly complicated models with reduced biological meaning, we used expert opinion to determine biologically relevant models based on the biology of the system. We also included a global and a null model with just the random effect and intercept. We calculated AICc because of small sample size, ΔAICc, AICc weight, and log-likelihood to rank models (Burnham and Anderson 2002). Models within 2 AICc of the top model were considered indistinguishable from each other (Burnham and Anderson 2002). Once top models were identified, we calculated model average parameter estimates with 95% confidence intervals (Arnold 2010). Parameters whose confidence intervals did not overlap zero were determined to be important predictors or prairie dog recapture success. We repeated this process for 1-month and 1-year post-release.


Patrick Family Trust