SONOITA, AZ (Tucson News Now) - There are some new residents living near Sonoita, thanks to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Crews released 94 black-tailed prairie dogs at Pima County's Sands Ranch on Friday, Oct. 13. This is the first time this has been done since 2010 and the first ever done outside of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which has a population of more than 200 prairie dogs.
This release is a part of a reintroduction effort started in 2008, and continues to be a priority for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Naturally occurring black-tailed prairie dogs in Arizona were last documented in the 1960s with the nearest colonies located in western New Mexico and Northern Mexico.
AZGFD biologists spent two weeks monitoring and capturing prairie dogs with help from New Mexico. The prairie dogs were transported in a covered truck overnight to Pima County and then released in a 40 acre site with 25 artificial burrows that were installed by AZGFD and county staff, with help from AZ Conservation Corps youth crews.
According to AZGFD, the artificial burrows are created by burying a 3-foot by 1-foot bottomless den about 6 feet underground, which is connected to the surface with plastic tubing. The burrow depth allows moderated temperatures, protection from the elements year round, and reduces the risk of predation. Every burrow is initially covered with a protective cage so the prairie dogs can get accustomed to their new home and venture safely outside the burrow entries without risk of predation. While in the acclimation cages, prairie dogs are fed and provided water until cages are removed two weeks later.
The initial phase of reintroduction can take months, and the prairie dogs are monitored regularly throughout this time, by volunteers and citizen scientists. They also monitor and feed the prairie dogs.
Anyone interested in helping should contact project biologists at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pima County partnered with AZGFD, beginning in 2010 to secure a $360,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the project. The county was able to use funds spent to acquire the Sands and Clyne ranches near Sonoita as in-kind match of $250,000. Sands Ranch was acquired by Pima County for conservation in 2008 under the 2004 Open Space Bond program.
Prairie dogs are an important part of the grassland ecosystem and are considered a "keystone species" because of their vast effect on other animals and habitats. Their digging activity increases the flow of rainwater into the water table, tills the soil, and provides habitat for many other types of wildlife such as burrowing owls, box turtles, mountain plovers, and hundreds of insect and arachnid species.
In addition, they often enhance digestibility, protein content, and productivity of grasses and forbs making colonies preferred foraging areas for pronghorn and domestic livestock. Similarly, they are a food source for grassland predators like golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, American badgers, bobcats, and many more. They also combat the encroachment of woody vegetation like mesquite into the grassland, and create natural fire breaks.
Since 2013, Pima County and AZGFD worked with local stakeholders and the public to plan the 2017 release with support from the operator of the county-owned portion of Sands Ranch.