When Tara Stephens, Calgary Zoo Conservation Population Ecologist, offered me a pair of snake guards – leg protection from rattlesnake bites – and explained precautions needed to avoid the plague – yes, that plague – I wondered if I shouldn’t be writing about spas instead of nature tours in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. But each summer Parks Canada and the Calgary Zoological Society offer a few intrepid travellers the chance to be a prairie dog researcher and I wanted to see if I had the chops to be a squirrel scientist, even temporarily.
Life as a prairie dog researcher requires days near tiny prairie dog towns and evenings in tiny human towns. The closest village to the park – Val Marie – has one restaurant and researchers seem to recite its opening hours as easily as prairie dog facts.
Researchers can also tell you which hills to climb for cell phone service and the best place to look for burrowing owls. I also discovered none of them have split ends (piles of conditioner are left over from hair-dye kits used to mark prairie dogs for visual surveys).
“I dyed my hair six different colours one summer,” recalled Stephens, “as I tried to figure out which colour was most visible at a distance.” Now researchers have a colour they can spot on prairie dogs at a distance and ten years of field research is revealing what prairie dogs need to maintain sustainable populations. Researchers also want to spark a love of prairie creatures with park visitors.
I pulled my truck camper into the park’s Frenchman Valley campground and cooked supper with a stiff breeze blowing mosquitos into the next province. I crawled into bed as lightning and booming thunderclaps sent tent campers scampering for their cars. Prairie landscapes may appear dull at first but as I discovered there was more here than first meets the eye.
What’s not to like about Prairie Dogs?
As dawn broke, I scrambled into my best prairie-dog observation outfit and waited for Stephens to lead me deeper into the park and the world of prairie dogs.
Some people confuse prairie dogs with their smaller cousins the Richardson’s ground squirrel (sometimes called the gopher and other less flattering names). But this large member of the squirrel family is a species at risk in Canada and only found in southwest Saskatchewan.
To me prairie dogs are also a species with charm. They live in family groups and they have a vocabulary. Researcher Dr. Con Slobodchikoff discovered that prairie dogs don’t just use different calls for danger versus “lunch’s over here”; they have different squeaks for different types of predators and distinguish colours and sizes. So instead of saying “human” they are apt to say “tall human that is yellow.”
I heard a sample of this vocabulary first-hand after we released a prairie dog we had captured. When the pillowcase holding the prairie dog was opened a round ball of golden fur shot across the prairie. It stopped just short of its burrow to turn and scold us vigorously. I’m pretty sure I had been told off by one kilogram of angry ground squirrel!
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize prairie dogs. They live in family groups that congregate into colonies we call towns, and they trim the plants around their burrows to keep their neighborhood neat. Sometimes they greet each other by placing their paws on each other’s shoulders and when they touched their front teeth together in something that looked to me like a squirrel kiss, I almost sighed.
In addition to being cute, prairie dogs are an important part of the ecosystem. They dig holes with the enthusiasm of an army corps engineer and their abandoned burrows provide homes for burrowing owls and other animals that need underground shelter. Prairie dogs are also dinner. Hawks, fox, rattlesnakes, badgers, and coyotes will eat prairie dogs given the chance.
The black-footed ferret – another species at risk – dines almost exclusively on prairie dogs, slipping into burrows at night to feast. Black-footed ferrets have had a particularly rough time of it since Europeans settled the west; ferrets were last seen in Canada in 1937. Now Parks Canada, the Calgary Zoo, and their partners are working to reintroduce black-footed ferrets into Grasslands National Park.
Which is why prairie dog research is so important. Without a sustainable population of prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets would starve. Parks Canada Manager, Resource Conservation, Sherri Clifford, summed up the challenge, “We won’t compromise one species at risk to save another.”
“So what’s correct number of prairie dogs?” I asked Stephens as we sat on a hill for two hours waiting for prairie dog captures. It seems no one knows, which is why research carried out by people like the Calgary Zoo’s crew of field biologists and Parks Canada staff is so important. They are learning more about the natural population cycles of prairie dogs and diseases like plaque that can decimate prairie dog towns.
We captured only one prairie dog on my watch but it was healthy and its weight and size went into the database. I may not have made a major contribution to science but my time in Grasslands National Park made a major impression on me. The openness of the landscape and the lack of people made the inter-connectedness of creatures here easy to see. As I drove away I swore I heard prairie dogs whispering on the wind.
. . . . . . .
If you go:
Parks Canada in collaboration with the Calgary Zoo offers volunteers the chance to get involved with its black-footed ferret and prairie dog ecosystems research. Learn more at http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/sk/grasslands/edu/edu3.aspx
If you don’t have time to volunteer you can still see prairie dogs at Grasslands National Park from your car or by hiking. The visitor center has maps and helpful wildlife viewing tips. http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/sk/grasslands/visit/visit4.aspx
There is camping in the park but reserve ahead. https://reservation.pc.gc.ca/ParksCanada
Gasoline is limited in the region so fill your tank before heading into the park.
. . . . . . .
About Carol Patterson CPA, CMA…
Creating a Flying Zoo program in the 1980s where her Cessna 172 passengers had fur, scales or a beak, Carol Patterson’s adventures spurred her to leave a career as an oil and gas accountant to see the world’s wildlife. In the quarter century since, she has inspired everyday explorers by writing and speaking about being chased by elephants in Africa, sliding through bat guano in Borneo, and breaking her ankle in Bhutan. When Carol’s not writing about the best of Canadian wildlife trips, she daydreams about spreadsheets.
Carol Patterson is a two-time winner of the Travel Media Association of Canada’s award for Best Environmental/Responsible Tourism Feature. She can be reached at www.carolpatterson.ca and Instagram: thecarolpatterson.