Field work is supposed to be straightforward, hard work, continue until a job is done, no complications. Just pack up the truck and be prepared, and things will all go smoothly. Right?
Let’s take the first site. I began with a paper map (i.e. not super-imposable on other maps) and drew some transect lines across it, placing points a certain distance apart where I wanted to sample. The first challenge: find out whether prairie dogs exist anywhere near my desired sampling locations. Site one (we’ll call it site NM24) should be somewhere west of Truth or Consequences, NM. [an aside– yes, this is the real name of the town. It used to be called Hot Springs, but in 1950 they decided to rename their town after a game show.] I drove around with my oh-so-patient parents for three days straight looking for prairie dogs– we visited T or C, Socorro, Forest Service and BLM land, private land, and an anonymous wildlife refuge (which will remain unnamed because of the fact that despite their friendly, helpful staff, they somehow managed to reintroduce a species of prairie dog that is probably not native to the area). We went on a wild goose chase following promising leads by people who swore there were lots of prairie dogs in some areas (a common statement: “oh yeah, we have a real problem with them in x location.” Problem? Hm. I’ll leave that issue for now), but many people commented, “Oh, they used to be all over up in y location, but I haven’t seen them there in years.” We found lots of empty burrows that probably belonged to ground squirrels (smaller than prairie dogs) or were abandoned, perhaps due to plague. What we did not find was a single living prairie dog– until we visited the I-25 interchange in Socorro. Yep, there they were, about a half dozen of them, inhabiting the one area that is free of human eradication attempts.
Site NM24 has still not been determined. Are there still Gunnison’s prairie dogs in that part of the state? I am told they exist further west by Quemado, but other than the highway prairie dogs and a few along the edge of the highway by the nearby Walmart, I didn’t see any as far east as I-25 (or even 50 kilometers west). Plague has been devastating in the last 100 years, and there have been massive outbreaks in the last 15 years from which prairie dogs have not seemed to recover. Perhaps colonies are so few and so isolated that after plague, there are no nearby animals to recolonize, so local extinctions occur.
Discouraged, I thought maybe I had forgotten how to look for prairie dogs and drove back to Boulder, hoping for better luck next weekend. At least I would have my dog, my camera, and plenty to read, and I would be in some beautiful places.