Photo: Prairie dog is a ball of cute

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Our photo of the day comes from Wyoming's Devil's Tower National Monument.

Going for the gratuitous cute overload here, can you blame us? But actually, there's a story to telll about the trials and tribulations of the prairie dog, and Rick Derevan's fabulous photo, above, is a great place to start.

Originally named "petits chiens" (little dogs) by early French explorers, prairie dogs once spread far across the Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan to northern Mexico. While not dogs, obviously, these highly social members of the squirrel family are closely related to ground squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks and marmots. Once plentiful, now only random populations remain, and mostly in protected areas like state and national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges. What happened to the one-time prairies-full of prairie dogs? The National Park Service explains:

"The prairie dog was once a major component of Great Plains life. Vast prairie dog towns stretched for miles across the open plains. In 1901, scientists surveyed a single Texas "dog town" that covered an area of 25,000 square miles and contained an estimated 400,000,000 prairie dogs. But this town and others were already under sentences of death. Prairie dog burrows proved dangerous for horses and wandering livestock and most ranchers were convinced that prairie dogs were destroying rangelands and competing with cattle for food. Extensive poisoning programs were implemented. These measures virtually eradicated the prairie dog and many of its predators."

Thankfully, we have a better understanding now of how every species plays an important part in the ecosystem – especially keystone species like prairie dogs – and we can celebrate the little dogs once again.

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