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Montana Field Guides

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S3

Agency Status


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Black-tailed Prairie Dog is the largest of the prairie dog species, weighing 700 to 1500 grams and measuring 28 to 33 centimeters from nose to tail (Burt and Grossenheider 1976, Hoogland and Foltz 1982). The overall color of the back and upper sides of the body and tail is generally dark cinnamon with buff coloring on the underside (Anderson 1972, Burt and Grossenheider 1976, Hall 1981). The distal third of the tail is black or dark brown (Hall 1981). They molt twice per year, prior to summer and prior to winter. The skull is about 60 centimeters long, with 22 teeth (Burt and Grossenheider 1976).

Diagnostic Characteristics
Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are easily separated from the similar White-tailed Prairie Dogs by the black color of the distal one-third of the tail tip. The Black-tailed Prairie Dog also lacks the distinctive dark face patches of the White-tailed Prairie Dog. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are also found in more dense colonies than are White-tailed Prairie Dogs. Features of the skull and teeth can also be used to separate the two species of prairie dogs in Montana (Foresman 2012).

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs may also be confused with a number of ground squirrel (Spermophilus) species, but are distinguished by their much more robust body conformation and relatively short tail and their habit of living in much denser colonies with more developed burrow systems.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 7442

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are not known to migrate, but young animals, primarily males, disperse from their natal burrows in May or June shortly after emerging from hibernation (Garrett and Franklin 1988). Males also disperse from their breeding territory after 2 years to avoid inbreeding with their two year old daughters (Hoogland 1995). Most dispersers remain in the home colony (Hoogland 1995), but others move up to 6 miles in search of new colonies (Knowles 1985).

Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies are found on flat, open grasslands and shrub/grasslands with low, relatively sparse vegetation. The most frequently occupied habitat in Montana is dominated by western wheatgrass, blue grama and big sagebrush (Montana Prairie Dog Working Group 2002). Colonies are associated with silty clay loams, sandy clay loams, and loams (Thorp 1949, Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Klatt and Hein 1978, Agnew et al. 1986) and fine to medium textured soils are preferred (Merriam 1902, Thorp 1949, Koford 1958), presumably because burrows and other structures tend to retain their shape and strength better than in coarse, loose soils. Encroachment into sands (e.g., loamy fine sand) occurs if the habitat is needed for colony expansion (Osborn 1942).

Shallow slopes of less than 10% are preferred (Koford 1958, Hillman et al. 1979, Dalsted et al. 1981), presumably in part because such areas drain well and are only slightly prone to flooding. By colonizing areas with low vegetative stature, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs often select areas with past human (as well as animal) disturbance. In Montana, colonies tended to be associated with areas heavily used by cattle, such as water tanks and long-term supplemental feeding sites (Licht and Sanchez 1993, FaunaWest 1998).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Black-tailed Prairie Dogs prefer grasses, focusing their herbivory on leaf bases (Koford 1958, Hansen and Gold 1977, Uresk 1984, Krueger 1986). The proportion of other forage types in the diet varies with season, location on town, and vegetative composition (Koford 1958, Hansen and Gold 1977, Uresk 1984, Krueger 1986, Summers and Linder 1978, Bonham and Lerwick 1976, Fagerstone et al. 1981). A 950-gram animal consumes roughly 2.2 pounds of dry laboratory feed per month, or 26.4 pounds per year (Hansen and Cavender 1973). In terms of forage consumption, Merriam (1902) and Koford (1958) estimated the number of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs equivalent to one animal unit (A.U.) to be 256 and 335, respectively. They apparently do not require free water (Merriam 1902, Bintz 1984). Water is obtained from green grass and forb shoots (green grasses contain about 68 to 77% water) (Bintz 1984), and, in winter, from succulents such as Opuntia spp., which are about 80% water (Summers and Linder 1978, Fagerstone et al. 1981).

Dispersal is heavily biased toward 1 to 2 year old males (Hoogland 1995). Intercolony dispersers may move up to 5 kilometers (Garrett and Franklin 1988). Dispersal was verified in 2 of 1200 marked animals in South Dakota: 1 moved 1 kilometer, the other 2 kilometers (Hoogland 1995). Other species are important in prairie ecosystem, Burrowing Owls, Mountain Plovers, and Black-footed Ferrets, and depend on Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns.

General information on Black-tailed Prairie Dogs is available.

The basic family group (the coterie) comprises one adult male (at least 2 years old), three or four adult females, and several yearlings or juveniles (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Large coteries with two or more males occasionally occur. Females remain in their coterie for life, whereas males usually leave within 12 to 14 months after weaning. The coterie system deteriorates in spring during gestation and lactation (King 1959). An organizational level higher than the coterie is the ward (King 1959), a town subdivision described according to topographic features.

Nonexpanding colonies fluctuate significantly between years under normal conditions (King 1959, Koford 1958, O'Meilia et al. 1982, Powell, unpublished). Spring counts revealed 252 Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in one year and 92 four years later (Hoogland et al. 1988). Over a 10-year period, the number of weaned juveniles ranged from 4 to 133. Expanding colonies can grow enormously in a few years, increasing population levels 30 to 295% (Hansen and Gold 1977, Garrett and Franklin 1988, Reading et al. 1989). Human control efforts and plague cause substantial fluctuations in population size (see later sections for detailed discussions). In areas where immigration of new individuals is successful, genetic variability within a population is not decreased by large population reductions (Daley 1992).

Under normal conditions, without catastrophic factors operating (e.g., plague or severe predation), rates of mortality vary substantially from year to year, both within and between cohorts (King 1959, Koford 1958, Hoogland et al. 1988). First year survival averaged 50 to 56% for males and females but ranged from 32 to 79% over a 5-year period (Hoogland et al. 1988). Mortality levels drop greatly after the first year, with males typically living to 3 to 4 years and females to 4 to 5 years. King (1955) observed 44% mortality in one population, with 36% mortality in the juvenile cohort followed by 22% mortality in the same cohort the following year.

Sylvatic plague is extremely important where it occurs. Sylvatic (bubonic) plague is an exotic disease that can kill more than 99% of prairie dogs in a colony (Cully 1989). The plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis) is transmitted animal-to-animal by infected fleas or contact with infected blood or tissue. Plague may be introduced into a colony by other species or by dispersing Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, which bring plague-ridden fleas into a colony.

Historically, the major predators on Black-tailed Prairie Dogs were primarily the Black-footed Ferret and the Badger (Bailey 1905, Koford 1958, Stromberg et al. 1983, Cully 1989). Raptors, snakes, Coyotes, foxes, and Bobcats all prey upon them, but usually at low rates (Koford 1958, Cully 1989, Powell unpublished). Starvation associated with drought and severe winters and interactions between old age and other mortality factors contribute to mortality (Koford 1958).

Colonies expand under force of crowding associated with high survival rates and lack of forage (Koford 1958, Garrett et al. 1982). Off-colony attributes facilitating expansion include high forage availability, forage quality, and deep soils. Inter-colony dispersal typically occurs from colonies that have reached carrying capacity, though emigration from young expanding colonies does occur (Garrett et al. 1982, Garrett and Franklin 1988). Dispersal occurs in the spring amongst healthy yearling males and adult females, which disperse an average 2.4 kilometers (Garrett and Franklin 1988).

Average colony size is typically 20 to 60 hectares, though colonies of less than 10 hectares to complexes of several hundred hectares are not uncommon (Bishop and Culbertson 1976, Cheatheam 1977, Clark et al. 1982, Knowles 1986). One C. leucurus colony in Utah covered 958 hectares (Clark et al. 1982). Merriam (1902) reported a Texas Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony covering 25,000 square miles. Average burrow density varies widely, from 9 per hectare to at least 250 per hectare (Bishop and Culbertson 1976, Clark et al. 1982, Reading et al. 1989). Thirty to 100 burrows per hectare is common. The number of burrow entrances per hectare also varies substantially, with 50 to 123 a typical range (King 1959). Density of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs fluctuates within and between years according to colony demographics, environmental conditions, forage availability, and soil and/or vegetation sites within towns (Koford 1958, Powell in progress). Typical adult densities are about 12 per hectare (Koford 1958, King 1959, Powell in progress). After young are weaned (and can be counted aboveground), densities of all age classes totaled typically range from 5 to 30 animals per hectare (Koford 1958, Hansen and Gold 1977, Knowles 1986, O'Meilia et al. 1982). In three consecutive years, King (1959) noted densities in July on the same site to change from 22 to 14 to 41 animals per hectare.

In a study of 18 burrow systems Sheets et al. (1971) found the burrows ranging from 3 to 14 feet deep and 13 to 109 feet long, with tunnel diameter of 4 to 5 inches. Passageway plugs are used to inhibit predators, to compartmentalize and block off waste, or when the burrow system is under remodeling (Smith 1958, Sheets et al. 1971, Martin et al. 1984, Burns et al. 1989).

Reproductive Characteristics
The breeding system is harem-polygynous, with most females copulating with one male and males with several females (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Females achieve estrous as early as the second week in March in Montana (Knowles 1987). Females are in estrous for several hours of only one day per year (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Gestation averages 35 days (Hoogland 1985, Knowles 1987). Though almost all adult females achieve estrous and many become pregnant, juvenile mortality is high with only one half of copulating females weaning a litter (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Minimum breeding age is usually two years for both sexes (Hoogland 1985, Knowles 1987). Litter size typically averages about 4 (Knowles 1987) (3 in yearlings, 5 in older females) (Koford 1958).

Vegetation condition does not necessarily affect litter size, with adults producing an average litter size of 4.3 on "fair" rangeland and 5.7 on "severely depleted" rangeland (Koford 1958), but relatively large and small litters may follow high and low rainfall, respectively. Individual females produce one litter per year. Pups stay underground until weaned (Hoogland 1985). Pups appear above ground in about 5 to 8 weeks (mid-May to early June in Montana). Due to forage availability and stress associated with crowding, the number of weaned juveniles increases as the number of adults and yearlings decreases, and vice-versa (Hoogland et al. 1988).

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are classified as a Species of Concern in Montana due to declines in abundance and a variety of threats to the population. Prairie dogs are managed under the Conservation Plan for Black-tailed and White-tailed Prairie Dogs in Montana (Montana Prairie Dog Working Group 2002). Please consult this plan for details concerning prairie dog management in Montana. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are also classified as Vertebrate Pests by the Montana Department of Agriculture.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
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Black-tailed Prairie Dog — Cynomys ludovicianus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on January 19, 2017, from