Phase II. Prairie Dogs Role on Ecosystem Functions: Expanding the Study Area, Looking into Restored Sites and Involving More Species

Maria Gabriela Rodriguez Barrera

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7 Aug 2019

Understanding the Role of Prairie Dogs for Maintaining Ecosystem Functions in Threatened Semi-Arid Mexican Grasslands

The aim of this project’s second phase is to continue studying the effects Cynomys mexicanus has on taxonomical and functional vegetation as well as overall grassland ecosystem functions within GPCA El Tokio.

Through history, grasslands have been heavily used by humans with little concern on the environmental effects. As a result, grasslands have become highly endangered, resulting in the large-scale conversion of native grasslands into agricultural areas. In 2009, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) through the cooperation of representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States agreed to a program for the conservation of North American grasslands. El Tokio is one of the 55 designated Grassland Priority Conservation Areas (GPCA) for this program, selected due to the presence of intact native grasslands and important breeding areas for a great number of grassland bird species. Furthermore, GPCA El Tokio is considered a semiarid dryland, which are highly vulnerable to environmental changes and desertification making their study key to sustainability goals because they harbor 38% of the human population which are mostly from developing countries with little to none funding for research. Adding more to the ecological significance of GPCA El Tokio is the fact that the area holds the last remaining colonies of the endemic Mexican Prairie Dog (C. mexicanus). The species is in drastic decline due to habitat loss because of agriculture, overgrazing, human settlement, fragmentation and isolation of colonies, diseases (e.g., plague) and past eradication programs. The species is also considered endangered by the IUCN red list of threatened species, and The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Research in similar ecosystems, e.g., Chihuahua with C. ludovicianus and in Central Asia, has highlighted the crucial role many burrowing herbivore mammals provide as so-called “ecosystem engineers”.

For Phase I we were able to compose a list of the present species and traits, gathered measures on ecosystem functions and found vegetation taxonomical and functional differences across prairie dog disturbance conditions, grassland types and seasons. For this II phase we will add restored sites, include bird and insect data sampling, and will involve undergraduate students in Mexico. Overall, adding one more sampling year, and the inclusion of more species and restored sites will provide us with more tools to provide accurate results for conservation agencies, pastoralist and farmers to manage this grassland ecosystem and implement better nature based conservation policies.

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