from Daily Camera. View the article here.
Researchers from the University of Colorado and Kansas State University have been awarded a grant for more than $850,000 to study the impacts of climate change on prairie dogs in the Boulder area.
The massive grant -- from the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation -- is designed to give the researchers three years in the field to try and figure out how climate change is altering prairie dog habitat and how the rodents are responding to those changes.
The study will be focused on open space lands in Boulder and Boulder County and will include testing soils, plants and prairie dog behavior. Researchers and city officials say the results will have implications for how cities manage prairie dogs in the future.
Tim Seastedt, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at CU and the principal investigator in the study, said global climate change has already caused changes in the growing season and the types of plant species that are found on urban open space.
One of the primary questions is whether those changes are causing prairie dogs to change their habits, including being more active during the winter -- which can lead to soil erosion after the rodents eat plants to the bare ground.
"The classical studies on prairie dogs for foraging behavior were sort of null and void" under the new climate reality, Seastedt said.
For example, prairie dogs don't hibernate, but they do tend to stay underground during the winter. Seastedt said warmer temperatures and less snow cover may change that behavior.
"This makes the argument that they're going to be up there grazing for a longer period of time," Seastedt said.
He said changes in climate and plant species could present a "variety of challenges that this keystone species has never faced."
"If these guys (prairie dogs) change their behavior, then they virtually reconstruct the system," he said.
The study also will examine the interactions between native and non-native plants, including whether new species are taking up water used by the native variety.
Seastedt said Boulder is the perfect place for a case study. After all, the city offers more protected prairie dog habitat than the massive Pawnee National Grassland on the northeastern plains.
And Boulder has a variety of non-native plant species that officials already have noticed seem to be changing the landscape.
Heather Swanson, Boulder's wildlife ecologist, said some of the changes reported in recent years include loss of topsoil and changes in plant species where prairie dogs can be found.
"Hopefully this study will actually document those changes, because right now it's just sort of anecdotal changes over time," she said.
Laurel Hartley is an assistant professor of biology at CU-Denver. She is an expert on prairie dogs and is teaming up with Seastedt on the study.
"We think we're going to find that in some places that the prairie dogs push the plant community in ways that we haven't seen before," she said.
She described the project as being "cutting edge" in terms of examining how global climate change will affect a species down the road.
Experiments will include creating cages to keep prairie dogs from grazing in certain areas and mimicking the various ways that climate change might eventually affect plants -- such as supplementing water to simulate changes in rain patterns.
"We'll know how grasslands will respond under certain scenarios," Hartley said.
She added that the results of the study likely would change the way cities such as Boulder address prairie dogs and grasslands.
"It definitely will have management implications," Hartley said.
Jesse Nippert, from Kansas State University, is a specialist in isotopic water analysis and also will be involved in the study.
Boulder Councilman Ken Wilson, who studied under Seastedt at CU, said he's eager to see the group's findings.
"I'm concerned that our management plan has not been informed by science that would look at what's happening on these fragmented parcels" of open space, Wilson said. "We've seen some impacts that are disturbing, where (prairie dogs) totally defoliate these areas. We need to understand why that's happening so that we can manage our grasslands better."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or firstname.lastname@example.org.