Cute little critters

I doubt whether anyone gets on a plane to the USA because they want to see a small burrowing rodent.  They might head for Yellowstone, as I am doing, hoping to see Grizzly Bears, Wolves and Moose – and, yes, I really hope I do see all of those.  At the moment I really hope I get into Yellowstone – there’s too much snow at the moment.  In fact yesterday I got to 10,000 feet on the Beartooth Pass, passed the state sign showing I was exiting Montana and then found the road down into Wyoming blocked by snow.  The Shore (Horned) Larks running about on the snow were nice but not nice enough to compensate.  The scenery was spectacular – but not spectacular enough to compensate either.

But down on the Plains the mammal that I may well remember the best and with most affection is the Black-tailed Prairie Dog – a colonial, burrowing, grazing rodent whose colonies are called townships and which cover areas of up to a few acres in extent.  As one looks across a township one sees these Cute Little Rodents (CLRs) sitting by their evenly spaced burrow entrances looking cute.

The CLRs have a variety of ways of looking cute.  They sit up and look around (think Meerkat and you’ve got the look), they occasionally make alarm calls by throwing back their heads in a spasm and uttering a cry, they are very tame and come right to the roadside, and at this time of year they bring their newly-born young to the burrow entrances to maximise the township cute factor.  I am,of course, a hardened scientist who doesn’t do cute – but the CLRs are really, really cute.

Of course, not everyone thinks so. In the Badlands I saw a sign, presumably put up by a rancher as it was at the Park entrance but not on Park land, saying that CLRs carry plague.  They do actually – bubonic plague – but there are fewer than 10 cases of plague in the USA each year (too many of course, and no fun for the victims) and none of them occurs up here, they are all in the southwest.  But, just to be certain,  I didn’t exchange lice, fleas or kisses with the CLRs and I believe I have got away with it.

The reason, I suspect, that the rancher doesn’t like CLRs is that they eat grass and dig holes.  The farmer probably doesn’t like Bison or Pronghorn much either for the same reason – the eating grass reason (bison holes would be worth seeing).  And in South Dakota, outside the National Parks, CLRs are listed as pests.

In Wind Cave NP visitor centre, in the rain, I read the following carefully worded statement, ‘…some ranchers believe that prairie dogs may adversely affect their livelihood.  Since prairie dogs play an important part in the prairie ecosystem they will always have a home at Wind Cave National Park.’.

The role of CLRs in prairie ecosystems is interesting.  CLR townships are favoured by a range of other grazing species, such as Bison, because of the prairies dogs’ impact on the vegetation.  Presumably all that nibbling, weeing and pooing creates a nice grassy sward that others can enjoy.

CLRs are loved by predators too.  The Black-footed Ferret, once thought to be extinct, but recently rediscovered, and making a come-back, likes CLRs to death – their deaths.  And I saw an immature Bald Eagle in a township yesterday – perhaps eating a CLR.

Back near 1800 there is a report of a township in Texas which covered 25000 square miles and numbered 400 million individuals – cuteness writ large.  Just as the prairie, the Bison, the Passenger Pigeon, the native American Plains Indian and the Eskimo Curlew have suffered great losses of range and population, so have the CLRs.

I think the CLRs deserve higher billing amongst the Plains wildlife – or maybe we should keep them a secret so that everyone gets a nice surprise when they discover their cuteness.


3 Replies to “Cute little critters”

  1. Sounds like you are having fun. It is interesting how “cute” and “smart” both have double meanings – good to look at and clever. Why are these linked?

  2. Nothing seems to change Mark especially my attitude,these CLRs and lots of other things are special when on my farm or someone elses farm but put them in your back garden and they would soon become a pest.

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