RESEARCH IS OFFICIALLY UNDERWAY at the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP), New Mexico! Today John and three new Prairie Dog Squad members arrived on site in the Valles Grande, a large basin grassland in high-altitude northern NM, to begin four months of behavioral research on the Gunnison’s prairie dog (GPD).
This year’s squaddies are Katie Collier, an undergraduate student on sabbatical; Marlin Dart, a recent graduate with a B.S. in Zoology; and Patrick Ryan, who graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Science and is attending graduate school at the University of Idaho in the Fall. Every year’s squad has gone through John’s thorough screening and initiation and, despite the warnings of harsh weather conditions and very long days with very few breaks and no pay, have enthusiastically accepted this year’s internship.
Last year John was continuing research he began in 2013 on a GPD colony in Redondo Meadows at the VCNP. All went well through the spring and summer, but upon returning in the Fall to re-mark the prairie dogs before they submerged for hibernation, John discovered the colony had collapsed from the plague, with 99% mortality. Not wanting to abandon his work on GPDs at the VCNP, John found a new colony in the Valles Grande, 6 miles east of Redondo Meadows as the crow flies over the tallest peak in the Jemez Mountains, Redondo Peak.
A new colony always brings with it challenges and lessons, and this year’s squaddies are in for a ride that will be educational, exciting, and at times frustrating, but in all exceptionally rewarding. As of today, only a few prairie dogs at our new colony have emerged blinking and tentative from a long winter of hibernation. Over the next few weeks, more prairie dogs will emerge as the sounds of spring and the warming soil give sign to the end of winter. The new squaddies will use the first few weeks to acquaint themselves with the research, data-taking, and the animals themselves. Before long, the slow and gradual activity of spring emergence will burst into a flurry of action as the mating season begins, and researchers and VCNP visitors alike will see the prairie dog behavioral repertoire in its full vibrancy.