February 2 was Groundhog Day, when Groundhog Chuck bit Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York and Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow in Pennsylvania. Groundhog Day is also immortalized in the film of the same name, where Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the day over and over again until he emerges as a kinder and gentler person.
In the West, some organizations such as the Prairie Dog Coalition and WildEarth Guardians celebrated the day as Prairie Dog Day, in honor of the iconic symbol of the western grasslands and plains. As I was preparing to attend a Prairie Dog Day celebration sponsored by the Denver Zoo, a person asked me: “Groundhogs and prairie dogs do something for people one day of the year. What do they do for us the rest of the time?”
On one level, this question has an easy answer. Prairie dogs and groundhogs dig into the soil, creating in the case of prairie dogs extensive burrow systems. The burrowing helps bring up to the surface nutrients that are locked in the ground, allowing those nutrients to be used by plants on the prairies. The burrows also allow rainwater to percolate into the ground, helping to recharge the aquifers on which we all depend for the water we drink.
Prairie dogs serve as keystone species in grassland ecosystems, helping to support a large web of predators, herbivores, and detritivores that depend to a large extent on the burrows for shelter, the plants that grow in prairie dog towns and the prairie dogs themselves for their daily food. If we eliminate these keystone animals, we have no idea what that is going to do to the energy flowing through grassland ecosystems. Certainly the populations of other species will crash, and it is very likely that a number of other species will go extinct.
The grasslands that prairie dogs live in make up about 40-50 percent of the land surface of the United States. These grasslands, and all the species of plants and animals that live there, provide a number of important ecosystem services, such as sequestering carbon and nitrogen, controlling erosion, and facilitating the percolation of water through the soil. On an economic scale, my coauthors and I estimate in our newly-released book, Prairie Dogs, that these ecosystem services bring in between $275 to $539 per hectare (about 2.5 acres) into our economy. As keystone species, prairie dogs play a major role in maintaining the ecological health of the grasslands.
On another level, however, the question of what groundhogs and prairie dogs do for us has a much more difficult answer. We humans tend to have an anthropocentric view of the world, seeing everything from our own perspective. Many times, that perspective does not see the value of the plants and animals that share our world. For example, prairie dogs have declined to about 2 percent of the population size they had 100 years ago, largely due to human actions and activities. As such, they join the 20 percent of mammalian species around the world that are heading toward extinction. From a self-interest standpoint, we should be concerned about this. Ecological studies have shown us that there is a delicate balance between all of the organisms living within an ecosystem. Perturbations that lead to disturbances of the energy flowing through a ecosystem, as well as changes in hydrologic, nitrogen, and carbon cycles, can lead to instabilities that are difficult to predict. We know that eliminating prairie dogs from grasslands can lead to higher local surface temperatures. As with the “Butterfly Effect,” can it also lead to greater climatic instability in our western plains states? The short answer is, we don’t know.
Yet we persist with our activities as if we knew all the answers, and like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” we do not seem to learn much day after day as species after species goes extinct. There is hope, however. In the end, Bill Murray’s character started to learn about the value of becoming a kinder, gentler person. We too should learn that there is value in all the living organisms that inhabit this earth, and treating them with gentle kindness all 365 days of each year might help our long-term survival on this planet.
Con Slobodchikoff, together with Bianca Perla and Jennifer Verdolin, are authors of the book Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society, newly-released on February 2, 2009 by Harvard University Press.