Prairie dogs and desertification

Photo credit: Science News

The black-tailed prairie dog is considered a pest by many, but new research finds that their presence helps to keep grassland from becoming desert.

Eliminating prairie dogs can lead to desertification

BY SARAH ZIELINSKI
EXCERPT

The research team studied grasslands and scrublands in the northwestern part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, comparing three types of land: grasslands with prairie dogs, grasslands devoid of prairie dogs and scrublands that used to be home to prairie dogs and are now dominated with mesquite. In each of these three areas, the scientists documented five ecosystem services: groundwater recharge, soil erosion, soil productive potential, carbon storage and availability of forage.

For all five factors, the prairie dog grasslands won out. “Our results clearly demonstrate a strong link between prairie dogs and the provision of ecosystem services,” the researchers write.

The prairie dog’s burrowing behavior aerates the soil and distributes nutrients and organic material, generally improving the soil and helping water trickle through. As a result, the lands where they live have soils that are less compacted. Those soils can soak up more of the region’s sparse water, sequestering it for drier times. More water increases forage production, meaning there’s more food for cattle. And these grasslands store more carbon, which is a serious concern with the hammer of climate change hanging over all our heads.

Lands that have compacted soil that can’t soak up water are more vulnerable todesertification Northern Mexico, as well as much of the American West that is home to prairie dogs, has been suffering from drought, and desertification has been a concern. “Today’s environmental challenges require an understanding of the processes of ecosystems and wildlife populations and an ability to integrate scientific research into decision-making,” the researchers note. Prairie dogs, it seems, are an important part of that calculation.

Read the full article: Science News

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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