Utah Prairie Dog

Common Name: Utah Prairie Dog
Scientific Name: Cynomys parvidens
Size (length) English & Metric: 12"-14.25" (30.5-36 cm)
Habitat: short grass prairie & mountain meadows
Diet: grass and forbs
Predators: badgers, coyotes, hawks and eagles, foxes, rattlesnakes
Three Prairie Dogs standing together in a meadow, like Meerkats, keeping a wary eye out for predators.
Prairie Dogs


Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents. The Utah Prairie Dog is the western most of the five prairie dog species that inhabit North America. Limited to the southwestern quarter of Utah, the Utah Prairie Dog has the most restricted range of all prairie dog species. Utah Prairie Dogs are tawny to reddish-brown in color, with short white-tipped tails and a black "eyebrow" above each eye--a marking that distinguishes them from other prairie dog species. They are thought to be closely related to the White-tailed Prairie Dog.

Biology & Behavior:
Unlike the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs of the Great Plains, Utah Prairie Dogs hibernate. Males emerge from their burrows in early March, while females come out later in March. Mating is the activity that dominates the colony through early April. Females are pregnant for about 28 days, so young prairie dog pups are born in late April or early May. Juvenile prairie dogs emerge after about six weeks. They attain adult size by October and reach sexual maturity at one year of age. Females can live to be eight years old, although males rarely make it more than five years.

Prairie dogs are among the most social of animals. They live together in large groups called colonies or towns. Most colonies have numerous burrows with a network of entrances allowing easy retreats but also quick escape. While burrows are a refuge from hawks, golden eagles, and coyotes, they can be a dangerous place when hungry badgers, weasels and rattlesnakes come to the colony. Therefore it is critical for a colony to post lookouts who take turns constantly searching for and identifying types of danger. When danger is detected, the lookouts bark to warn the colony. While most of the colony will retreat to the safety of their burrows, a few lookouts stationed on opposite ends of the colony may tease the invader by drawing its attention from one prairie dog to the next so that it can't concentrate on any one individual. It is thought that prairie dogs evolved this communal behavior primarily to ward off their numerous predators.

Within a larger colony there will be several subgroups, or "coteries" as they are called. Coteries are based around a harem of females and one or more dominant males. Females born into a coterie almost always stay within that coterie, while males almost always leave their birth coterie to join another nearby. Interaction between coteries is sometimes violent. A strong coterie will often invade the territory of a weaker coterie, killing or running off the resident dogs. Rival male prairie dogs will often enter burrows and kill some or all of the young. It is thought that by killing other pups in the colony, the male is creating better odds for the survival of his young.

Conservation Issues:
Prairie dogs once inhabited enormous areas of the western Great Plains. The first pioneers who crossed the short-grass prairies were astounded to find vast colonies of stout little rodents. They called the creatures "prairie-dogs" and labeled their sprawling settlements "towns." One such town in Texas covered an estimated 25,000 square miles and was said to have 400 million inhabitants! Throughout the West, smaller colonies were found all the way to Canada. At that time, the total population of prairie dogs was estimated to have been over 5 billion. The settlement of the West decimated these enormous populations.

Although not as numerous as other kinds of prairie dogs, Utah Prairie Dogs numbered 95,000 animals in the 1920s. By the 1960s, populations had crashed due to poisoning and other reduction methods. Disease, like Sylvatic plague (yersinia pestis) and drought also caused decline. By 1972, it was estimated that only 3,300 Utah Prairie Dogs remained and loss of suitable habitat was predicted to result in the species' extinction by the year 2000.

In 1973, the Utah Prairie Dog was listed as an endangered species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife List of Threatened and Endangered Species. Conservation strategies included reintroducing them to Bryce Canyon National Park. Today over 600 animals live in the park, and comprise the largest protected population of Utah Prairie Dogs. In 1992, prairie dogs were trapped within the park, and transported to the Awapa Plateau to establish another viable colony. Recent successes have caused the Utah Prairie Dog status to be downlisted from endangered to threatened. However, populations still remain precariously low. It is hoped that more reintroduction's within the protection of Bryce Canyon's boundaries will help get the species off the Endangered Species list altogether.

When and Where to See Utah Prairie Dogs at Bryce Canyon:
On sunny summer days, Utah Prairie Dogs can regularly be seen in the meadows that border the roads in the northern portion of Bryce Canyon National Park. Please slow down as you drive by a colony and respect our prairie dogs by viewing them from a safe distance (at least 10 feet/3 m). It's never a good idea to approach or feed a wild animal of any size. Getting close to a prairie dog or allowing one to approach you is an especially bad idea. Too many park visitors feed rodents and other wildlife thus causing these animals to lose their natural fear of humans. This mistake also puts humans in danger as wildlife can spread potentially lethal diseases to humans from direct bites or bites from parasites that live on wildlife, such as fleas. Fleas can spring up to 10 feet (3 m) in a single jump! Please, when viewing all wildlife species, keep them wild by respecting their space.

Hoogland, John L. The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL 1995

Whitaker, John O. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. Alfred A Knopf, Inc. p937.

Last updated: January 30, 2024

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