A twitching nose between two fat, fluffy cheeks pokes up out of a hole in the ground. The nose's owner, a black-tailed prairie dog, checks the area for danger before scurrying out of her burrow, tail flicking. She sniffs the air, cautiously proceeding to a green area where she uses her hand-like paws to pick stalks of grass and stuff them into her mouth like french fries. Soon, her four pups venture out of the burrow as well and romp about, playfighting, and feasting on plants.
When she sees them, she greets each with a kiss on the mouth--prairie dogs are some of the few animals that display their affection this way just like humans and apes. If any predators appear, mom will yip a warning, sending the whole family scampering into their underground home.
These delightful little creatures have lost much of their natural habitat to housing developments, farming, and ranching. According to National Geographic, prairie dog habitat has shrunk to about 5% of what it once was. Now, it's harder to find a place to watch them as they go about their daily routine. Fortunately, North Dakota is home to some prime prairie dog real estate. The state's sparse population has left space for these squirrel-like animals to develop their sprawling communities. Read on to learn more about some North Dakota destinations for spotting prairie dogs.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit, Medora, South Dakota
Before becoming president, a young, 20-something, Theodore Roosevelt sought a career as a rancher in south-western North Dakota. The badlands where Roosevelt lived later became one of the country's most beautiful national parks. The NPS website shares his writing about the local wildlife: "Prairie-dogs are abundant...; they are in shape like little woodchucks, and are the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable. They are never found singly, but always in towns of several hundred inhabitants; and these towns are found in all kinds of places where the country is flat and treeless."
- Fun fact: The largest prairie dog town on record was found in Texas in the early 20th century and stretched 25,000 square miles. There were likely 400 million prairie dog residents, but ranchers hunted and poisoned them, worrying that the animals' burrows would ruin their cattle pastures.
Wildlife lovers with hopes of seeing prairie dogs, bison, golden eagles, wild horses, and more should head to Medora, North Dakota. This town is the gate to the national park. Visitors will need a vehicle to drive to the park and on park roads. The nearest major airports are in Bismarck, ND (a two-hour drive) and Billings, MT (a four-hour drive). Air travelers will need to rent cars to travel to Medora and explore the park to its fullest.
- Bismark, ND - This is a two-hour drive from the national park.
- Billings, MT - A larger airport, travelers may find lower-priced tickets to this destination, but they'll have double the drive time, four hours, to Medora, ND.
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three units: southern, northern, and Elkhorn ranch. Visitors will pass through three prairie dog towns while driving on the park road in the southern unit. This is the easiest way to encounter the critters. There are towns in the northern unit as well, but getting to them takes some hiking since the park road doesn't pass through them. The most easily accessible is a one-mile hike from the Caprock-Coulee parking lot.
- Quick tip: It's best to observe prairie dogs early in the morning or late in the evening. This is when they are most active. During sunny summer days, they tend to stay in their cool burrows.
Little Missouri National Grasslands
The Little Missouri National Grasslands surround Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are more extensive and the perfect place for watching wildlife. They stretch from Waterford City, ND to the north all the way down to Bowman, ND to the south with Medora in the middle. There are huge concentrations of prairie dogs in the national grasslands since hunting is limited and natural predators like black-footed ferrets and golden eagles have also suffered from humans invading their habitats. Fewer predators mean more prairie dogs.
- Maah Daah Hey Trail
- Bennet Campground Area - Grassy Butte, ND
- Buffalo Gap Campground Area - Medora, ND
- Burning Coal Vein Campground Area - Between Medora and Amidon, ND
- CCC Campground Area - Watford City, ND
- Summit Campground Area - Watford City, ND
- Wannagan Campground Area - Sentinel Butte, ND
Standing Rock Indian Reservation
The Standing Rock Indian Reservation on the border between North and South Dakota is one of the places with the highest concentration of prairie dogs in the country. In fact, they've had to come up with creative ways to keep the size of the prairie dog population healthy: releasing endangered black-footed ferrets into the prairie dog towns and offering hunting licenses with no limit for the number of prairie dogs.
The Standing Rock Reservation Game and Fish Department offers a list of hunting guides for anyone interested in seeing more of the reservation up close and practicing the sport.
Prairie dogs are not as majestic as elk, as graceful as deer, or as imposing as American bison. They are sweet, small, and inquisitive. Most importantly, although their size may not show it, they are a keystone species, in other words, fundamental to keeping the ecosystem of the Great Plains healthy. If they were to disappear, so would many of their neighboring animals and plants. Visitors in North Dakota watching these charming animals should take a few moments to contemplate how a being, seemingly so insignificant, plays a role in sustaining life all around it on the Great Plains.