UW research finds prairie dogs increase forage quality, acknowledges nuisances

Lauren Connell during an annual vegetation survey at a control site in the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

Ranchers have known prairie dogs can reduce rangeland forage by as much as half, but prairie dogs may significantly increase the quality of forage that regrows, according to research by a University of Wyoming master’s student.

Lauren Connell said forage clipping by prairie dogs maintains a younger plant growth stage, and its palatability is significantly more nutrient-rich.

Her preliminary data is based on forage quality samples collected on and off prairie dog colonies from four sites in the Thunder Basin National Grassland in June, July and August and biomass samples in August.

Her research suggests the prairie dog-livestock relationship mimics the historic prairie dog-bison structure. Perennial rangeland plants evolved with intense, short-term grazing by bison and the grazing leads to new, highly nutritious leaves.

Prairie dogs foraging and associated soil disturbance removes dead plant material, establishes grasses and forbs in a high state of nutrition and maintains that quality for a longer period of the growing season, she said.

“That can be a benefit to cattle,” said Connell, a student in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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