The Gunnison's prairie dog is one of five species of the prairie dog. They belong to the squirrel family of rodents, and are predominantly related to the North American and Eurasian ground squirrels. Their coats are yellow-toned buff merged with black-colored hairs. The upper head, sides of the cheek, and eyebrows are darker than the rest of the body. Their tails are mostly white with grayish-white ends and the tips are light gray. A distinguishing physical trait of the prairie dog is the placement of the eyes. They are situated on the sides of their heads, giving them a wide peripheral range of sight. This allows them to spot predators more easily and react as quickly as possible.
Gunnison's prairie dogs are found in Colorado, Arizona, Utah and in New Mexico in the United States. They live in high desert, grasslands, meadows, hillsides, broad alluvial valleys and floodplains. They are often found in shrubs, such as rabbitbrush, sagebrush, and saltbrush.
Gunnison's prairie dogs live in colonies of up to several hundred individuals. Each colony consists of communal groups or solitary individuals. These communities of prairie dogs vary from 2 to 19 individuals and may consist of a single male/single female, single male/multiple females, or multiple males/multiple females. Gunnison's prairie dogs are territorial and violent behavior is common toward other animals who are not members. These prairie dogs are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. When above ground they spend time feeding, making social contacts, being aware of their surroundings and predators, grooming and burrowing. These prairie dogs hibernate. During the winter, they stay underground for long periods of time without food or water. After hibernation, they become active again around March or April. Gunnison's prairie dogs communicate with the help of cuddling and kissing, and through vocalization, such as a warning bark.
Gunnison's prairie dogs are polygynandrous (promiscuous), where both males and females have multiple partners during the breeding season. These animals breed from mid-March and until mid-May. Females produce one litter per year of 4-5 pups. The gestation period usually lasts around 30 days. Once the pups are born, the mother nurses them for about 30 to 40 days. During this time, pups stay in the nesting burrow located underground. Towards the end of lactation, the young are able to come out above ground; they must learn how to separate themselves from their mothers and survive on their own. As soon as the mother is done caring her young, she moves to another burrow, leaving her now-independent young behind. Soon after that, they scatter to other vacant burrows. Females in this species are ready to breed at the age of one year.
Gunnison's prairie dogs are threatened by shootings, plague cycles, and poisoning. Hunting greatly influenced the decline of Gunnison's prairie dog populations, and only in Arizona in 2001, hunters shot 91,000 animals. Humans continue to affect prairie dog populations and in some ranchers implement poisoning programs to eliminate the animals. However, currently, plague is probably the biggest threat to this species.
The IUCN Red List and other sources do not provide the Gunnison's prairie dog total population size. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List, however its numbers today are decreasing.
These animals play an important role in the ecosystem they live. The sagebrush habitat is dependent on these animals. Due to the Gunnison's prairie dogs burrowing habit, the soil is freshened, organic matter is added, and increased water penetration is able to occur. Their burrowing also creates habitats and exposes food sources for other creatures.