The discovery of burrows that could have been created by a rare prairie dog species at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management’s (LM) Bluewater, New Mexico, Disposal Site, culminated in LM’s placing motion-activated trail cameras near the burrows to confirm their presence.
In the spring of 2019, Legacy Management Strategic Partner (LMSP) ecologists conducted a special-status plant and wildlife inventory at the Bluewater site because it was considered a strong candidate for containing native wildlife and unique plant species.
The ecologists discovered burrows that were likely made by Gunnison’s prairie dogs, a species listed as sensitive by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and a species of greatest conservation need in New Mexico. However, they didn’t observe any prairie dogs at the time and couldn’t confirm the special status species’ presence.
Since it was impractical to perform additional ground surveys to confirm the prairie dogs’ presence, an LMSP scientist and field team strategically placed trail cameras near four of the burrows in November 2021.
Motion-activated trail cameras, or “game cameras,” are an inexpensive and minimally invasive method to passively observe wildlife occurrence and behavior. They operate continuously 24 hours a day and can detect wildlife at night and in adverse weather conditions. Another advantage of this technology is that wildlife does not display a natural aversion to trail cameras, as they often do to human presence in their environment, making these cameras an ideal supplement to traditional ground surveys.
The cameras record activity at the burrows and will be periodically checked by LMSP staff over the next year to determine if prairie dogs are present. They are also likely to record other inhabitants, such as elk, that are known to frequent the area. If Gunnison’s prairie dogs are confirmed to be present, this will add to the ecological value of the site and help identify potential conservation efforts to maintain or facilitate this species’ presence on the site.