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Dog talk

Prairie dogs are hard workers, digging tunnels and collecting food that leaves their “towns” with very few plants. That lack of grass and brush helps them see predators coming.

Their name comes from the high-pitched warning sound they make when they see something dangerous like a coyote. Someone thought the rodent’s warning sounded like a dog’s bark.

One study found that the underground tunnels in a prairie dog town were 3 to 4 feet deep and 13 to 109 feet long. Those tunnels were about 4 to 5 inches wide and tall. Sometimes prairie dogs plug the holes to block animals that want to eat them, or wall off where they go to the bathroom.

Black-tailed prairie dogs — the largest of the five prairie dog species — can measure 14- to 17-inches long and weigh from one to three pounds. Because they are little, prairie dogs provide food for other animals like black-footed ferrets, swift foxes, hawks, coyotes and owls. Their holes are used by burrowing owls.

The other four species of prairie dogs — all of which are found only in North America — are the white-tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison prairie dog, the Utah prairie dog and the Mexican prairie dog. All are members of the squirrel family.

You may remember that last winter was very cold with lots of snow that didn’t melt until late in the spring. This may be why many prairie dogs in Eastern Montana died. Sometimes disease, which is carried by fleas, wipes out whole prairie dog towns, but scientists could find no proof that had happened.

Montana has a state park dedicated to prairie dogs between the towns of Big Timber and Reed Point along Interstate 90. It’s called the Grey Cliff Prairie Dog State Park. If you get a chance, stop by and say hello to the little creatures, but bring your binoculars or they will bark when you get too close and disappear down one of their long tunnels.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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