This past summer I was lucky enough to work as a conservation research field technician for the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research on the Canadian Prairie Dog Ecosystem Research Project . Every year a field crew heads to Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan to study the black-tailed prairie dog and black-footed ferret populations. In and around the park is the only place in Canada where these two species can be found, and they are part of a unique grasslands ecosystem - an ecosystem in which prairie dogs are the keystone species. Black-tailed prairie dogs are highly social rodents who create extensive burrow systems, which are used by many other animals, including badgers, burrowing owls and prairie rattlesnakes. Prairie dog colonies also provide a concentrated food source for many predators such as coyotes and birds of prey. Of all the species that rely on prairie dogs, however, the black-footed ferret is a species whose survival is the most tightly linked to the presence of prairie dogs. Not only do the ferrets use the burrows for shelter and to raise their kits, but a very large percentage of their diet consists of prairie dogs, as they are specialist predators.
Black-tailed prairie dogs were once widespread throughout the Grasslands of North America, but were greatly reduced in numbers due to eradication campaigns, loss of habitat and outbreaks of sylvatic plague - as of 2011, they are listed as threatened in Canada. When prairie dog numbers declined, black-footed ferret populations inevitably declined as well, so much so that the species was thought to be extinct in North America. Miraculously, a remnant population of BFFs was found in 1981 in Wyoming. Since then, a captive breeding program has been implemented, and BFFs have been re-introduced onto selected prairie dog colonies of United States, Mexico and Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan - the only Canadian reintroduction site. Thus, the prairie dog - ferret ecosystem in Canada in very fragile and monitoring both populations and understanding the factors that influence their dynamics is crucial to ensuring their long-term survival.
For the past seven summers, Calgary Zoo and Parks Canada biologists have spent many hours doing just that - closely studying the population dynamics of both prairie dogs and ferrets using a variety of methods. My work last summer consisted mostly of prairie dog population monitoring - by means of live trapping, burrow counts and visual count surveys. I also got to do five nights of ferret monitoring, which was a totally different experience! Searching for black-footed ferrets involves walking around prairie dog colonies at night with a high-powered spotlight, hoping to catch a glimpse of the emerald green eye-shine of an elusive ferret popping up from a burrow. Although you have to be reasonably lucky to see a ferret, there are many other interesting animals out at night - badgers, coyotes, swift foxes, deer and burrowing owls, just to name a few! Plus, the stars are amazing, as Grasslands National Park is a Dark-sky Preserve!
All in all, the work was challenging, but rewarding. The grasslands are such a unique ecosystem, and the park is home to many animals that are difficult to spot anywhere else in Canada. Looking back at the summer I remember all of the amazing parts - driving into the park at sunrise, sitting on a ladder in the summer sun watching prairie dogs play (while counting them, of course), working with an awesome group of people. The swarming mosquitoes, blazing prairie sun, and super long days are certainly still a part of the experience, but the amazing parts of the job largely outweigh the less agreeable parts! I liked it so much, in fact, that I plan to return to the Grasslands to continue working on the Canadian Prairie Dog Ecosystem Research Project. Stay tuned for more updates, and check out my photo gallery to see some prairie scenery and wildlife.