January 14, 2011
12:23 p.m., Friday
I’m in western Kansas with my colleagues to figure out what happened to all the prairie dogs at the black-footed ferret reintroduction site. Everyone wants to know what happened. Is it plague or some other devastating disease? Were they all poisoned? Did a massive group of migrating hawks and eagles eat every last prairie dog? Maybe it was an alien abduction. Maybe I should have gotten more sleep.
The sun is out and there isn’t a cloud to be seen, making for a pretty nice day. The winds are calm and I’m cruising slowly on a gravel road, windows down, on my way to Larry’s house. I scan in all directions, looking for any sign of live prairie dogs. Nothing.
Prairie dogs are usually pretty conspicuous. If they see a vehicle nearby they scurry back to their burrows, stand on top of the burrow mound and sound the alarm call, which can be heard at 300 yards. Finally I spot the familiar silhouettes of two prairie dogs near an old windmill. I stop the truck and “glass” them with my binoculars to verify. I breathe a small sigh of relief at the sight of two live prairie dogs, but I’m still bewildered.
Over the past few days I’ve had a lot of thoughts, ideas and overall confusion running through my mind. The prairie dogs are gone or dead yet the black-footed ferrets are still here. I’ve run several scenarios through my mind, but nothing seems to add up. The germ of a new idea begins to brew in my mind, and I ask myself, “Could the prairie dogs be alive and here, but we are not seeing them?”
I’m on the phone with my friend and colleague Dean B. He has worked with black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs for 30 years and has seen a lot of things. Dean tells me about a student of his that documented torpor, a shorter form of hibernation, by black-tailed prairie dogs in eastern Colorado. When the prairie dogs were stressed by dry conditions they were unable to build up normal fat reserves and retreated down into the burrow for a week or so. The body temperature drops and metabolism slows as the animal goes into extended periods of sleep. Cautiously, Dean suggests that the prairie dogs in Kansas may be going through an extended bout of torpor or hibernation.
That germ of a new idea in my mind starts to blossom. Hibernation.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are not normally thought of as hibernators like the white-tailed and Gunnison’s prairie dogs. In Canada, hibernation in black-tailed prairie dogs is common but the climate there is a bit harsher in the winter. I didn’t think the prairie dogs in Kansas would hibernate, but perhaps they do more often than we know.
I meet up with Dan, Jack and Larry and share with them some of Dean’s thoughts about hibernation. It sounds strange, but it certainly is plausible and we are pretty sure of one fact — it is not plague. Because the black-footed ferrets seem to be doing well, we decide that it is not a crisis but rather a mystery. Only time will tell if hibernation is the answer, and we decide to re-convene at Larry’s in one month.
February 16, 2011
1:34 p.m., Wednesday
The sun is high in the sky today, and the weather is excellent. Dean is with me this time as the pickup truck rumbles down the gravel road toward Larry’s ranch. As we approach the edge of the ranch where the prairie dogs begin, I get a little bit nervous. What if we don’t find any prairie dogs on this trip? Even worse, what if we don’t find any black-footed ferrets?
We reach the edge of the ranch and I slow the pickup, rolling down the windows to get a better look. The relatively warm February air hits me in the face, but I barely even notice because I see seven prairie dogs. Things are looking better but still not perfect.
February 18, 2011
6:40 a.m., Friday
We just finished up a second night of spotlighting and found a dozen black-footed ferrets. This helps put our mind at ease and lends some credence to the hibernation theory. After some discussion, Dean and I decide to do some morning prairie dog counts to see if they emerge after sunrise as they normally would. This will also provide us with some impromptu data for future comparisons. I drop Dean off in an area where no prairie dogs were observed in January despite the hundreds of burrows present. It’s still a bit crisp and chill, so Dean has to bundle up as he grabs his binoculars and finds a seat on the hillside among the yucca plants, an excellent vantage point to count prairie dogs. I leave to count prairie dogs in another area, and we agree to meet up in a few hours.
The prairie dogs on my counting plot have peaked at 13, and it is likely that I will not count a higher number today. I maneuver the pickup truck through the yucca to reach Dean. He has counted 10. I plan to return in March for another count. If our hibernation theory is correct, we should see a huge jump in our prairie dog counts.
March 15, 2011
7:13 a.m., Tuesday
I’m sitting in the same exact spot that Dean was in February, among the yucca plants. A good prairie dog count today will go a long ways toward verifying the hibernation theory. In the early morning, silent prairie, my stomach growls. Am I nervous about the count or is it a lack of breakfast? I’m sure it’s a little bit of both.
The morning is getting quite warm as I finish up my count. Sixty-one prairie dogs counted where only 10 were counted a month ago. The prairie dogs are here and appear to be OK! On my way out of the ranch I stop by and tell Larry and his wife about the excellent count. I can see a look of relief in his eyes and we share a laugh about this great prairie dog mystery that has unraveled over the last four months. Larry, along with a few other landowners and The Nature Conservancy, have fought hard to keep their prairie dogs and make a safe place for black-footed ferrets on the Kansas prairie. He feared plague or some other phenomenon may have squashed all his effort over the past five years. With a laugh Larry said to me, “In the end the prairie dogs were just sleeping. You better get home and do some hibernating yourself.” I drag my tired body into the truck and begin the 5-hour drive home, satisfied that the prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in Kansas are doing fine for now. I plug my music player into the truck radio and set it to shuffle and play any random song. Eventually a Beatles song is randomly played and the melodic harmonies of John Lennon fill the truck. “Please don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me, leave me where I am…I’m only sleeping.”