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Utah prairie dog population dynamics on the Awapa Plateau: Precipitation, elevation, and plague

October 1, 2021

Utah prairie dogs (UPDs, Cynomys parvidens) are colonial, herbivorous rodents listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. Little is known about UPD population dynamics at higher elevations in the species’ range. From 2013 through 2016, we studied UPDs on five colonies at 2,645 to 2,873 m elevation on the Awapa Plateau, Utah, USA. Primary production increases with precipitation and precipitation increases with elevation on the plateau. We hypothesized that UPD body condition, reproduction, survival, and population growth all would vary directly with precipitation and elevation. Each year, we live-trapped UPDs from late-Jun through Aug, weighing each UPD, aging it as adult or pup, measuring its right hind foot, marking it for unique identification, and releasing it at point of capture. Fleas from live-trapped UPDs and opportunistically collected rodent carcasses, and rodent carcasses themselves, were tested for the agent of sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis), a lethal invasive pathogen. Adult UPD body condition (mass:foot) increased with elevation. In addition, UPD reproduction (pups:adults) and population growth (λ) increased with precipitation. Annual survival declined from 0.49 in 2013–2014 to 0.24 in 2015–2016. We captured 421 UPDs in 2013 but only 149 in 2016. Sylvatic plague may have contributed to population declines. Notwithstanding, plague detection (yes/no by colony and year) had no statistical effect on population growth or annual survival, raising suspicion about the predictive value of binary plague detection variables. Generally speaking, efforts to conserve UPDs may benefit from the restoration and preservation of large colonies at mesic sites.

Publication Year 2021
Title Utah prairie dog population dynamics on the Awapa Plateau: Precipitation, elevation, and plague
DOI 10.1093/jmammal/gyab103
Authors David A. Eads, Dean E. Biggins
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Mammalogy
Index ID 70228852
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center