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Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs greet each other with a nuzzle while outside their burrows at the Vilas Zoo. All but one of the zoo's prairie dogs died over the winter. 

Following a brutal winter that killed almost all of the prairie dogs at Vilas Zoo, the lone surviving prairie dog has been transferred to Ochsner Park Zoo in Baraboo.

Intense rains last year caused the water table under the exhibit to rise about 10 feet above normal, said Jess Thompson, Vilas Zoo’s conservation education curator. That limited how deeply the prairie dogs could burrow during the winter, when near-record low temperatures caused most of them to freeze to death despite extra bedding provided by zookeepers.

“As it can be detrimental to disturb the prairie dogs during their denning, we only recently learned of this issue once the time had passed that they would normally have emerged from their dens,” Thompson said.

Black-tailed prairie dogs, which are the species kept at the zoo, don’t typically hibernate for an entire winter, particularly in the warmer climates in their natural range, Thompson said. But when it gets cold, it isn’t unusual for the animals to stay underground for months at a time.

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The size of the colony has varied year to year, Thompson said, but there had been about 20 prairie dogs.

Mike Hardy, Baraboo’s Parks and Recreation director, said the Ochsner Zoo’s prairie dog exhibit did not face the same problems. He said the Vilas Zoo’s remaining prairie dog has now joined the colony at Ochsner Zoo.

The Vilas Zoo exhibit will not be reopened, Thompson said. Instead, the bison exhibit will expand into that space. The zoo does plan to build a redesigned exhibit for prairie dogs, Thompson said.

“Though we don’t know exactly what that will look like at this time, as with any addition we will make sure to plan for today as well as our potential future, which means planning exhibits that can be resilient to climate change,” Thompson said.

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