In a complex urban-impacted landscape, native black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) amplify the trajectory at which grassland plant communities deviate from historical configurations. Prairie dog removal has been proposed as an intervention method based upon the premise that removing a major directional driver of change will initiate the recovery of historically common plant communities. However, in a heavily anthropogenically influenced landscape with a matrix containing only small fragmented areas of native vegetation, the recolonization speed and success of native plant species may not match those observed in less anthropogenically influenced landscapes. This study examined the effect of urban prairie dog removal by using remote sensing to observe the response of plant communities near Boulder, Colorado, USA to plague epizootics. We used Mann-Whitney U tests to compare the soil adjusted vegetation index (SAVI) values from colonies recently extirpated by plague to both areas unoccupied by prairie dogs and to plague-absent colonies. Analysis of 67 Landsat images in three growing season subsets suggested that prairie dog removal alone does not return colony plant communities to compositions representative of grassland areas unoccupied by prairie dogs. The absence of SAVI value changes in the mid- and late-growing seasons suggested that novel vegetation communities on urban prairie dog colonies were highly resilient systems, and prairie dog removal alone was insufficient for restoration. Furthermore, increased early season SAVI values on extirpated colonies could indicate a proliferation of introduced winter active species and exotic forbs, not the desired reemergence of native species, but rather species expected given current climatic changes. Intensive management efforts appear necessary for overcoming the thresholds required to restore urban prairie dog colonies to their historical compositions, an effort made increasingly more difficult with the ongoing effects of other global change drivers.
Beals, Stower C.; Preston, Daniel L.; and Wessman, Carol A., "Resilience of a novel ecosystem after the loss of a keystone species: plague epizootics and urban prairie dog management" (2015). University Libraries Open Access Fund Supported Publications. 70.