Prairie wildlife is often stuck between a rock and a hard place. In urban areas, their habitat – and sometimes the animals themselves – are cleared out to make way for human homes, shopping malls, and parking lots. In rural areas, grasslands might be plowed under, fences can create deadly hazards, hunting can take its toll, and persecution of some of the most ecologically important native animals continues to this day.
The Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) came up with a simple idea to help prairie wildlife nearly 25 years ago. Buy the land under their feet. Then provide total protection for the grasslands and their native animals and plants.
Fast forward to the present, and SPLT has protected over 38,000 acres in southeast Colorado. That’s nearly 60 square miles. The aim: to keep on going, with the logic that more land means more refuge for more wildlife. It’s a private-property, free-market solution that everyone can get behind.
SPLT’s scope includes southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, northeast New Mexico, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. This is a region known as the “High Plains,” with elevations of about 4,000 feet above sea level. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and on the droughty side, with precipitation of about 8 – 12 inches each year, mostly falling in the summer.
It’s also perfect habitat for a Disney-esque assortment of animals, starting with prairie dogs, which enjoy total protection on SPLT preserves. A sandy blond, two-pound animal reminiscent of meerkats, prairie dogs are an ecologically crucial rodent found only in North America. Like the keystone in an archway, they are small but mighty, creating and sustaining a unique ecosystem.
Prairie dogs create vast underground burrow networks that provide lizards, snakes, turtles, rabbits, mice, and even a bird – the burrowing owl – with safe places to eke out a living. Above ground, pronghorn and bison are attracted to prairie dog colonies because the plants are more nutritious and succulent there. Predators, such as badgers, coyotes, bobcats, and the little swift fox (which weighs less than a house cat), hunt prairie dogs and are the reason that prairie dogs try to keep the grass short, to surveil for these hunters. There are also hunters in the sky, with golden eagles and the closely related ferruginous hawk being the primary raptors that pursue prairie dogs.
Prairie dog colonies are abuzz with activity. No other animal can emulate the keystone role this special creature plays in the short- and mixed-grass prairies of the Great Plains. Yet, they have long been misunderstood and targeted for eradication. Their towns once covered about 100 million acres from southern Canada, sweeping through 11 U.S. states, and into northern Mexico. Their populations were likely in the billions. Today, their area and numbers have dwindled to just 2 – 5% of their former abundance, due to extermination campaigns, as well as a devastating and non-native disease, sylvatic plague, to which they have virtually no immunity.
As a result of the prairie dog’s plight, there’s one carnivore that tends to be missing across its once extensive range: the black-footed ferret. This creature is the only type of ferret native to North America and is among the most endangered mammals on the continent. A member of the weasel family, this feisty ferret is slender, has a black facemask, short black legs, and a black-tipped tail on an otherwise buffy coat. The black-footed ferret has a certain dinner in mind: over 90% of their diet in the wild is prairie dogs. It is only found in prairie dog colonies in the wild. Nearly going extinct because of the drastic decline in prairie dogs, they exist today only because of a captive breeding and reintroduction program.
Prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets urgently need places where they come first. SPLT protects prairie dogs on its preserves from all threats and is working with governmental wildlife agencies to reintroduce the missing ferret to its land.
Other prairie creatures also need assistance, including the hulking U.S. national mammal, the American bison. Like prairie dogs, the bison plays critical roles in prairie ecosystems. When these massive beasts take dust baths, they create unique depressions called wallows that collect water and form special habitats that can give rise to new generations of wildflowers and spadefoot toads. Bison also knock down trees and shrubs, and establish a mosaic of grassland patches by grazing some areas lightly and others more heavily. Bison-influenced prairie provides conditions that different grassland birds (many of which are rapidly declining) require to build their nests, find food, and provide cover for their young.
Yet, about 90% of the approximately 500,000 American bison on the continent today are raised as livestock. Even in national parks, such as Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, bison are hunted or shipped to slaughter. SPLT is one of a growing number of organizations committed to the recovery of bison as a wildlife species and provides the bison with refuge on its preserves.
SPLT properties are also sanctuaries to elk and pronghorn, which occurred in large numbers on the Great Plains until the early 1900s. Elk were hunted so heavily that the survivors fled to forests. They have straggled back to the southern plains in small numbers but continue to be severely hunted and urgently need safe places. Pronghorn occur in larger numbers on the plains than elk, but are still at less than 10% of their historic populations. As SPLT continues to expand its preserve network, it does so with prairie elk and pronghorn in mind, providing total refuge and also removing fence to make the landscape more passable for these native grazers.
While the Great Plains has lost its once-numerous wolves and grizzly bears due to extermination campaigns in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the prairie carnivores that persist need help. Coyotes brave relentless persecution, but the defiant song dog has not only survived but, with its legendary adaptability, has greatly expanded its range. On the individual level, though, coyotes need refuges where they are treasured and allowed to conduct their business without human meddling.
Badgers, bobcats, and swift foxes also need places where they can subsist without facing threats from people. In a fascinating partnership, badgers sometimes pair up with coyotes to enhance their chances of success in catching prairie dogs. Swift foxes are small and friendly and specialize in prairie dog hunting. Bobcats tend to focus on rabbits. All of these beautiful carnivores are targeted by the fur trade. SPLT prohibits any hunting or other wildlife killing and protects the land (the homes of these native creatures) from road-building and other development.
There’s a tendency for people to pick and choose which animals we like and don’t like. Snakes often end up with the short end of the stick. In contrast, SPLT’s approach is to welcome all native wildlife. That’s particularly meaningful for species such as rattlesnakes, long targeted by people. SPLT preserves provide habitat for both prairie rattlers and the rare massasauga, another type of rattlesnake. There is a rich variety of snakes on the prairie, as well as other reptiles such as lizards, skinks, and turtles. Amphibians include leopard frogs (with leopard-like spots) and tiger salamanders (with tiger-like stripes).
These aquatic dwellers need healthy streams and ponds. That’s where the American beaver comes in. This oversized rodent suffers intolerance in rural and urban areas alike but is prized on SPLT preserves. Beaver and prairie dogs are bookends of biodiversity on the prairie: prairie dogs create oases of life on the grasslands, while beaver do the same in streams. Beaver form ponds and canals through their dam-building, effectively creating and expanding riparian areas (streams and streamsides). Consider that about 75% of western wildlife require riparian areas to meet their needs, and these areas only cover about 1% of the land in the western U.S., and you get a sense for how powerful the benefits to wildlife can be from beavers bustling around.
While the most important thing SPLT does is to buy land and create permanent refuges, the group also restores habitats to give native wildlife a head start. The group has been planting thousands of cottonwoods and willows on its preserves to create long cottonwood galleries skirted by dense willow stands. These forests and thickets will help the enterprising beavers that have come back to the region to stay and raise future generations of ecological engineers. The verdant habitats will provide cover for mule deer and coyotes, roosts for porcupines, turkeys, and bats, and nest sites for golden eagles. SPLT’s wild vision is realizable, as cottonwoods are among the fastest growing trees in North America; they can grow as much as 6 – 12 feet each year.
SPLT’s solution of buying land where wildlife comes first and is provided true refuge has tangible results. You can measure it in the number of acres within the organization’s preserve network. Those acres and their resident species are permanently protected. The wild animals and plants rapidly flourish in response.
The price of land where SPLT is buying is about $500 per acre. For half of the price of the latest iPhone, one can protect a football field-sized piece of prairie forever. The group keeps overhead low so that donor dollars are directly translated into more land for wildlife. SPLT has the opportunity to make its biggest leap forward yet, as it seeks to expand Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve from its current size of 25,000 acres to 43,000 acres – as soon as this year. Anyone can help by providing a donation or grant in support of SPLT’s work to create places for the wild ones.