The rare Utah prairie dog is not a dog, but a ground-dwelling rodent from the squirrel family. It is tawny to reddish-brown, with a short tail with a white tip and black "eyebrows" above their eyes, which distinguishes them from others of the prairie dog species. They occur only in Utah, having the smallest range of any prairie dog species.
Within Utah there are three main colonies: East Fork, Awapa Plateau, and the main branch of the Sevier River and eastern Iron County. The Utah prairie dog lives in grasslands (or ‘prairies’). It needs deep, well-drained soil for the purpose of creating underground burrows.
Utah prairie dogs live in large colonies with sometimes thousands of members. Within a colony, individuals reside in territorial family groups known as ‘clans’, typically containing one sexually mature adult male (of at least one year old) along with two or three sexually mature adult females. This species is a diurnal rodent, foraging during good weather above ground from just after dawn until just after sunset. They hibernate for several months each year, staying mostly underground from November to February, although they are not completely dormant during winter. Emergence from hibernation is dependent on altitude, but is typically in March and April. The males generally enter and emerge from their hibernation one or two weeks before the females. These prairie dogs dig vast burrow systems underground, usually 5 to 7 meters in depth, with up to 25 entrances.
Utah prairie dogs are polygynous (or harem-polygynous) which means that one male mates with multiple females in his clan (family group). The mating season is generally from late March to early April, and during this time each female is only able to mate for several hours in one day. Gestation lasts 28 to 31 days, and between one and seven pups will be born. Females raise their young in separate nursery burrows. Juveniles stay underground until they are five to six weeks old and weaned, first appearing above ground during late May until early June. Females tend to remain in their natal coteries while yearling males will disperse to the border of a colony or to another colony to seek females with which to breed. A female usually first mates at the age of one year. Males sometimes mate at this age, but they commonly don’t mate until the age of two.
The main threat to Utah prairie dogs is the invasion by humans of its habitat. Ranchers clearing the land for grazing regard them as pests which spread disease and consume vegetation their cattle could eat, so they often scatter poisonous bait near the entrances to burrows or inject poisonous gases into burrows. These animals are also threatened by sylvatic (bubonic) plague, caused by a bacterium and transmitted by fleas, an introduced disease against which Utah prairie dogs have no good defense. As a result of these threats, this species currently inhabits only about 5% of the area they occupied 200 years earlier.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Utah prairie dog population size is thought to be fewer than 10,000 individuals. Currently this species is classified as Endangered (EN) and its numbers are decreasing.
Utah prairie dogs have a vital role in helping to maintain the prairie ecosystem. Their burrowing activities aerate the soil, which allows more water to penetrate, and their dung, rich in nitrogen, is a natural fertilizer which acts to improve soil quality and vegetation. Burrowing owls, snakes and some other species of animals use burrows deserted by the prairie dogs for nesting areas. These animals are an important source of food for many predator species, such as the rare black-footed ferret.