Gunnison's Prairie Dog

A solitary prairie dog stands at attention in a grassy field.
A solitary Gunnison's prairie dog stands at attention in a grassy field.

NPS/Corey Lycopolus


The Gunnison's prairie dog is often the first wild animal spotted by visitors to Valles Caldera National Preserve. This highly social critter inhabits the montane grasslands throughout the park, living in colonies that can contain hundreds of interconnected burrows, chambers, and underground tunnels. These animals have a sophisticated communication system with a variety of chirps and calls to warn their colony of approaching predators and other dangers.



Gunnison's prairie dogs inhabit grasslands and high desert environments across Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. They live in colonies containing burrow systems that extend 15 to 86 feet underground with several chambers used as nurseries, latrines, resting areas, and air pockets in the event of flooding. Crater-like mounds provide excellent observation posts. A maze of burrows aerates the hard-packed soil while providing dens, protection from predators, and hibernation space for mice, rabbits, ground squirrels, snakes, and insects.


Prairie dogs are preyed upon by coyotes, hawks, eagles, and badgers. In fact, prairie dogs make up roughly 75% of the diet of golden eagle chicks.

Coyotes and American badgers sometimes hunt prairie dogs together using their complementary hunting skills – the badger can dig below ground and the coyote can chase prey above ground. Although this relationship is described by Indigenous people and early European settlers dating back to at least the 19th century, little research has been done to understand the circumstances in which these two carnivore species work together.

At Valles Caldera, researchers are actively studying the environmental conditions that influence when coyotes and badgers work together, including distance to large prairie dog colonies, human disturbance, time of day, and seasonality. Learn more.



Myth vs. Reality

Prairie dogs have long been considered pests. Early ranchers believed prairie dogs were responsible for overgrazed lands. In reality, it was only after cattle shortened the grasses and settlers killed predators that prairie dog populations increased. Recently, it has even been discovered that cattle and prairie dog colonies can actually benefit each other.

At Valles Caldera, the Gunnison’s prairie dog has eaten away the annual grasses and shrubs for food and to more easily watch for approaching predators. Shorter perennial grasses, shrubs and flowers with more nutrients now grow amongst the colony burrows.


The Gunnison's prairie dog carries fleas that sometime harbor a plague bacteria (Yersinia pestiis) known to cause bubonic plague in humans. Visitors to Valles Caldera are urged to take actions to mitigate the risk of contracting plague. Please hike only on designated trails. Never attempt to approach, feed, or touch wild animals. Know the areas of the park where pets are allowed, and keep pets on-leash at all times.

Studies indicate that the plague usually appears when there is a stress in the prairie dog population. A major cause of stress is overpopulation. Many of the prairie dog’s natural predators, such as wolves and coyotes, were systematically reduced during eradication efforts in the early 1900s. As prairie dog populations increase, they are more susceptible to disease, and when prairie dog colonies die, their predators must find other food sources or leave the area.



Related Articles

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    Flores, Dan. 2017. Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. New York: Basic Books.

    National Park Service, Curecanti National Recreation Area. 2015. "Gunnison's Prairie Dogs." Last accessed January 5, 2024.

    Steinberg, Ted. 2002. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. New York: Oxford University Press.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Gunnison's Prairie Dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)." Last accessed January 5, 2024.

    W.J. Loughry, Mariah Oeser, Corey Devin Anderson, John L. Hoogland. 2019. "The importance of individual variation in the alarm calls of Gunnison's prairie dogs." Animal Behaviour, no. 150: 59-68.

    Last updated: February 2, 2024

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