Thursday, January 14, 2021

King of the Beasts

There is no doubt that the author of the book, The Ecology of Sasquatch, does not exist.

It is a fact, the evidence of the author is scant and what little is produced has been misidentified. Most experts believe he is a storefront mannequin, a shaved ape, a manatee, or a man-shaped balloon from the 1928 Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade that came unmoored and drifted away, landing in Tercentary Theater at Harvard University where it was awarded an honorary degree in Hyperbole. That is not an exaggeration. 

There is a lot of wind in his book, enough, it is said, to power 1,600 wind generators, enough to power all the homes in the city of Denver, Colorado. Not only that, the wind is strong enough to force the winds coming out of Canada right back up into the Arctic, where it compresses and warms, adding to the catastrophic melting of permafrost. Global warming is caused by hot human breath!

This just has to be true because one can read it right here right now and this was passed along by 453 virtual friends - they could be if they were. This is the definitive description of nothingness, the absence of something.  

Looking to fill the void, one fires up the television machine, leans forward, and squints at the grainy, minute-long film of a man in a rabbit-fur suit, look, the zipper is visible in the front. There he is again, the ape-like creature, swinging his arms, punching Gorosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Gigantophis, Pterodactylus, sea serpents, and Godzilla. The imagery is high definition, the sound is stereophonic, and the subwoofer shakes the living room floor as he roars and stomps across the land. Our hands sweat, our heart pounds. 

The problem is, studies have shown that actors can actually get lost in a role, like that circus clown in the corner booth at the cafe who sprays the waitress with his lapel flower and eats his hat. A 2019 study concluded, "portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a 'loss of self.'" Another study from the same year observed, "simulating others changed self-knowledge, such that the self becomes more similar to the simulated other." Uh oh. 

There are two sides to this story. The man in the rabbit-fur suit made our palms sweat and heart pound. He transformed our perception of the world around us. This becomes clear after one has watched the ape-man terrorize members of the actors guild and the theater audience for two hours and then steps outside into the dark night. The shadows between the buildings, the rooftops beyond the streetlight, the dark, empty space between the parked cars, the back seat in our automobile, each has taken on a threatening aspect, has become less secure, less devoid of danger.

The problem is, we have learned that Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are not real, no more than the lonely, impotent Mr. Sasquatch. A few miles down the highway, listening to elevator music, our mind ejects the ape-man in the back seat. He flies off into space. Our hands dry off, our heart settles down. 

In the 1940s there were newsreels that showed images of carpet bombing in Europe. In the 1960s, the nightly news showed identical images, in color, of carpet bombing in Southeast Asia. Acres of pockmarks, like ground acne, a moonscape right here on earth, air force lakes, Swiss Cheese School of Landscaping, just like Bonny and Clyde's bullet-riddled gangster car. Today, the nightly news shows images of a scarred earth, with roadside bombs, melting Greenland, oil spills in the Niger Delta, coral bleaching, mounds of plastic garbage on remote beaches, and the daily street battles between opposing ideologues pitching tear gas canisters at each other. 

One sits back and turns off the imagery. After a few miles, a few kitten videos, a few minutes of elevator music, his hands stop sweating and his heart settles down. He has recovered his self-knowledge. The monster is ejected into outer space again as he drives away. 


Brown Steven, Cockett Peter and Yuan Ye 2019. The neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI study of actingR. Soc. open sci.6181908. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.181908

Meyer ML, Zhao Z, Tamir DI. Simulating other people changes the self. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2019 Nov;148(11):1898-1913. doi: 10.1037/xge0000565. Epub 2019 Apr 29. PMID: 31033322.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Status Migrainosus

Languages die. Or it is has been said.

When a language falls into disuse, when the last native speaker has uttered his dying word, when there is no society to carry it, the language has become dead. Any interest beyond that is academic, like archeologists digging in a graveyard exposed during the construction of a museum. But deadness is highly prized, like cadaver teeth to a Civil War dentist. Dead things don't move, aren't subject to change, thus, a dead language is a very useful container for those who would want the linguistic meaning of their work to be stable.

Latin is a dead language, having fallen out of use centuries ago - with the exception of quaint Latin Clubs and the Latin Church, whose leaders bemazed onlookers with a theatrical display of it until the 1960s. That's the reason scientists selected Latin as the language to name and describe living things, geologic formations, and scientific processes. These words would be fixed and stable for all time. Yes, our name is Homo sapiens, and we are stuck with it until we de-evolve into simple primates. Comparatively, the English word "human" is subject to change. At this point in history, the meaning of that word has mutated under tremendous selective social pressure and it bears little resemblance to what it meant just a few decades ago. Just look around.

Memories evolve. Or so we think. Cornell University published a study in 2002 in which they showed participants an advertisement describing Bugs Bunny at Disneyworld. Bugs was called "an impossible character" because there is no Bugs at Disneyworld. Bugs is under contract with Warner Brothers, not with Disney. Were he to be spotted, he would be escorted from the premises, face legal action, and his stuffing would be found floating in a canal south of Lake Okeechobee - blown to bits by a cartoon bomb. Authorities said that this was the fate of Bug's older brother, Fritz, whose dismembered foot was found in San Francisco bay - attached to a chain. His movies were destroyed in the 1934 fire at the Burbank studio, destroying valuable evidence. Only some original production drawings remain.

By the way, after viewing the phony advertisement, thirty percent of the participants said they recalled meeting Bugs at Disneyworld as a child. The suggestion of an impossible event, bolstered by fabricated evidence produced a false memory.

To be a memory is to know war. From conception until death, memories are under fierce selective pressure. Only the fittest memory is able to survive REM sleep, the dark hours when the mind stalks and preys upon the daily storylines, purging the weak, culling the herd, a brutal nightly assault that makes us toss and turn, grind our teeth, and jolt up straight in bed, screaming at the shadow suspended in midair above our bed. In the morning, we don't remember a thing, but we have a slight headache. That's the hole where reality was. In the mind's war between reality and desire, the difference is what is recalled.

So we put our words in Latin, hoping to fix and stabilize the ideas, but Latin does not determine the nature of the idea. We only imagine that reality does not die. "Reality" is a word that has mutated under intense selective social pressure. At this point in history, the meaning of that word bears little resemblance to what it meant just a, well, a few nights ago. Just look around.

As we indulge our desires, knowing what we wish to know, sinking deeper into a post-truth world, where outlying data is given equal weight to the preponderance of data, where science is believed to be opinion, where the loudest voice is equal to truth, where two plus two equals five and it's that cabal of billionaire mathematicians just trying to control our minds, we are heading toward one massive headache.

So, as the reality of real reality escapes us like a madman twisting out of the grasp of hospital orderlies, running into the street, screaming, we imagine that he has lost his mind, but he is just trying to get away from us.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Vacation Getaway!

Well, the numbers are in and the winner is. 

There continues to be talk about a manned mission to Mars. It's been in the planning stage since about 1877. That's when Giovanni Schiaparelli described canali, or waterways on the Martian surface. In 1892, Camille Flammarion ran with that idea and described an entire race of superior beings. In 1950, Ray Bradbury chronicled his tours of the Martian cities. Over the years, various motion pictures were made on location. Many motion picture stars died in horrific battles on Martian soil and in the Martian skies. Alas. Today, millions of the faithful travel to Area 51 in hopes of spotting one of the reclusive aliens that inhabit the region, and if not, they may see a dead singer or two not far away in Las Vegas. 

Meanwhile, Venus goes unnoticed. Mars is half the size of the earth, further away from the sun, covered with red dust, no surface water, with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than the Earth's, composed almost entirely of CO2, with an average temperature of minus 60 celsius. Still, there are thousands of people camped outside of the launch pad gates, hoping to be some of the first in line to buy tickets to fly to the Red Planet. Vacation in the red rocks, lose pounds instantly, get a tan, feel the stress melt away.

Venus, on the other hand, has a similar mass, radius, density, composition, gravity, year, and day as the earth. It is about 2/3 the distance to the sun. Leave the crowds on Mars - picture yourself out on your deck, cold drink in hand, basking in the Venusian sun. This could be you! 

We need to work out a few ergonomic issues with Venusian travel, however. The surface temperature averages 465 degrees celsius, the air pressure is 90 times that of Earth, the sky is obscured by clouds of sulfuric acid, and the windstorms are legendary, at least as bad as those in Livingston, Montana where it can blow 90 miles an hour on a clear day, and perhaps as bad as those in North Dakota, but we are not so sure since communication there has not advanced much beyond the telegraph - the singing wire! - and all accounts seem to have been inflated by at least as much wind as was said to be in the storms. We have heard that a North Dakota man lost his hat in one storm coming hard out of Canada, which blew his hat straight to the south. It went clear out of sight. He stood there and looked at his watch. A minute later he turned around, faced into the wind, and caught his hat blowing right at him from the north.

Anyhow, life on Venus is not. 

Returning to earth, where the aliens landed, apparently in search of oxygen and a spot of shade - and, we might add, apparently victims of species profiling because all humans seem to think that all aliens have teardrop-shaped heads, large glowing eyes, small mouths, wasting musculature, holes where there were once ears, and they whisper and point at everything - here, back on this climate-controlled earth, we find that our air conditioning has seized up and is pouring out smoke. 

The numbers are in for 2020: 

Total acres burned in the United States: 10,274,679. This beats the modern-day, Smokey-The-Bear-Era record set in 2015. And that's just the US. This year produced some grim satellite imagery of the earth on fire, from the Amazon to Siberia to Austraila and North America. 

I think I saw one of those aliens in that line at the launch pad. 

https://nyti.ms/2L0F2Cs



Friday, November 08, 2019

Time In

We have returned.
The blogs have been compiled into a book, How the Earth Was Lost. It has most of the absent essays plus new essays, illustrations, and photographs. 25 chapters plus an introduction. It even has footnotes. That is more reading than doctors advise in a day.
This may or may not be good news.
We hope to create more blogs on the gyrating world of ecology, but that depends. If the public outcry is too severe, we will hang it up.
In the meantime, you can find it at Amazon. It is in print format but we hope to have an ebook version out shortly.
Thanks.
 - Us



Sunday, January 14, 2018

Spring Ephemeral

That's large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), from the Chequamegon National Forest, in Price County, WI. Photo 5/11/07.



















One way or another, most life on earth depends upon light from the sun. Over the course of a year, a tremendous amount of solar energy reaches the earth’s atmosphere – many times the amount energy used by the human race in a year. Of that, about one-third is reflected back into space and one-half is absorbed at the earth’s surface. 
Lately, there is a lot of energy being poured into the conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. Solar panels. Their useful life is about 30 years and then they become waste. It is estimated that Japan will produce 10,000 tons of solar panel waste in the year 2020. Recently, the production of solar panels in California produced about 5,000 tons of contaminated sludge and water per year. It is estimated that the human race will produce 60-78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. Some electronic waste is burned to recover valuable minerals but the smoke is highly toxic. Most of the electronic waste in the US is stacked in garages and closets, pausing before it enters what is called the "trash stream", which, from where we stand, looks an awful lot like an actual stream with actual dead fish that is emptying into an actual dying ocean. 
Meanwhile, at the earth's surface, plants capture solar energy and, through photosynthesis, convert the light into sugar, which is then used for tissues, structure, growth, and reproduction. Solar panels. A leaf has a useful life of no more than a few years, in the case of evergreen species. Deciduous leaves are good for less than one year. Once their useful life is over, they become waste. The leaves turn shocking hues of red, orange, yellow which stun and bemaze onlookers, flutter to the ground, are dismantled cell-by-cell by trillions of unpaid organisms, and are completely reabsorbed into this thing called an ecosystem, enriching the soil, enabling growth of yet more plants. 
Light is life. Plants will orient their leaves and stems toward the light, following the sun across the sky and jockeying for patches of sunlight that have slipped through the forest canopy. In temperate latitudes, when those deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall, it exposes the forest floor to the sun’s rays. When spring returns and the sun rises higher in the sky, daylight and soil temperatures increase and snowmelt moistens the soil. Trees and shrubs break out of their winter dormancy. But before the light and temperature are sufficient for trees and shrubs to leaf out and cast shadows all over the forest floor, a special group of plants lying beneath the leaf litter reanimate and emerge, taking advantage of the open canopy and bounty of sunlight. Found in North America, Russia, and Japan, these are called spring ephemerals.
Plants are like shift workers; different species are active at different times of the year. Spring ephemerals work best in cooler temperatures, those found in the early spring. The spring shift. They photosynthesize at high rates and absorb water efficiently when the soil temperatures are low, when most deciduous trees and shrubs are just beginning to move sap and produce leaves. Thus, while many other plants take an entire growing season to produce leaves, flower, set seed and go dormant, spring ephemerals are able to accomplish this in a matter of 6 to 8 weeks.
After these weeks pass, spring ephemerals have stored enough carbohydrates for the next growing season. By then, soil temperatures have become intolerably warm for these species. This signals the end of their shift. Their flowers fade, leaves wither, nutrients are recycled from stems and leaves, and seeds are set. Just as the rest of the forest is leafing out and gearing up for a busy summer of solar alchemy, the summer shift, spring ephemerals are retiring for the season, spending the remainder of the summer in a dormant state. They disappear from view. Where there were once carpets of trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), there is a shaded forest floor beneath a dense canopy of trees and shrubs.
What a life. No punch clock. No boss. No litigation. No indentured servitude, remediation, arbitrators, hazardous materials, safety violations, labor riots, lockouts, sick leave, hostile takeovers, unfunded mandates. No maintenance schedule, failure points, recalls, noxious fumes, spaghetti code, obsolescence, incompatibility. And no patents. This technology is free for the taking.


Monday, January 01, 2018

Fires to Date

This is fire.
Photo 8/26/12 near Fairmont Hot Springs, MT. 

Probably from the Mustang Complex Fire along the Montana-Idaho border. It burned 332,000 acres or 518 square miles, about twice the size of Chicago or 2000 times bigger than Disneyland, which may have a thrilling, all-ages amusement ride involving fire and Bambi, but we are not certain. 

It is the end of the year and this is a good time to review the list of the wildfire acres in the US for the past 58 years (data from the National Interagency Fire Center).

You will note that the past year was the third worst fire season since 1960. And you will note that the average acreages have about doubled since the 1960's and the top ten fire seasons have occurred since 2000. 

*** Update: Since this was posted on January 1st, the final numbers for the 2017 fire season came in and it proved to be the second-worst fire season since 1960, surpassing the 10 million-acre mark for the second time. *** 

Plot this on a graph, describe the slope of the line, and see where it leads you in say, 20 years, at which time you may reminisce about the days when you didn't camp in fireproof tents.


Spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Photo 7/24/04, Cook County, MN
Meat tenderizer. 

















These are carnivorous plants, inhabiting fens, bogs and peatlands in the northern latitudes. Pretty as they may be, these peatlands are killing fields. Insects are attracted to a sweet mucilage secreted by the glandular hairs on the sundew leaf. The hairs are thigmonastic, that is, they move in response to touch or vibration. The hairs converge on the struggling insect. The musilage contains enzymes: chitinase, esterase, peroxidase, phosphatase, protease. The mucilage secretion is stimulated by specific molecules. A quote from Matusikova 2005: "The reaction of sundew leaves depends on the molecular nature of the inducer applied." And from Gallie 1997, regarding pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), another carnivorous plant found in fens and bogs: "Hydrolase expression is induced upon perception of the appropriate chemical signal."
This is to say, the glistening tentacles of sundew respond to touch and the chemistry of the insect that lands on them, inducing the plant to produce enzymes and to curl the tentacles around the insect. 
The purpose of all of this is to convert the insect into digestible material for the plant, enabling it to live in a nutrient-poor habitat, such as bogs are. 
Yes, like a cold fog, death creeps across the sodden moor. 
That is not all. These northern bogs have two other carnivorous plants. Pitcher plant traps insects in a leafy vase filled with rainwater and enzymes. The vase is lined with sharp spikes, like concertina wire, preventing any escape. Bladderwort (Utricularia) has a submerged bladder under negative pressure that has a trap door and a lever. A water flea or mosquito larvae that touch the lever open the trap door, sucking it into the bladder within tenths of a second. Once again, it is bathed in digestive enzymes. 
The insect dies within 15 minutes, and it is safe to say that these are the most horrifying 15 minutes of his brief, hapless life, as the powerful enzymes attack his defenseless, softening body and reduce it to a soupy meal. 
We are pleased that insects do not scream, at least in a range heard by humans.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16049675
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/…/ar…/PMC158611/pdf/1151461.pdf



Seed Bank

Death Valley 4/8/16
Flowers are desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), pebble pincushion (Chaenactis carphoclinia), golden evening primrose (Camissonia brevipes), desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), showy gilia (Gilia cana triceps) to mention a few. 
Soil seed bank, to be precise. These are flowers in Death Valley, many of which are annuals, germinating from seeds in a rare year when rains are sufficient. Look up "Superbloom." The seeds have been in the soil for years, waiting for the right rains to come. 
The Soil Seed Bank is the repository of seeds in the leaf litter, soil surface, or soil layer. They are like a bank in that they are available for germination in a landscape that has failed to produce seeds in one growing season or more. This failure can happen in times of drought, fire, landslide, floods, hail, human disturbance. The seeds in the seed bank may germinate when favorable conditions return, restoring the historic array of species. That is, as long as the seeds remain viable over the course of the unfavorable conditions.
Seed banks are found wherever plants, animals, wind or other vectors deposit seeds: in the black prairie soils, the bottom of lakes, the muck in swamps, bogs, and marshes, dunes, badland soils, and even permafrost. Some species of seed may be viable for decades, even centuries. In 2012, Russian scientists regenerated Silene stenophylla (narrow-leaved campion, a plant found in Siberia and northern Japan) from a 32,000-year-old late Pleistocene seed that had been buried in the permafrost. Although this specimen wasn't regenerated from a seed, it indicates a potential for ancient germplasm in ice-age seed repositories. 
Some of the seeds in our modern soils may have a very long viability in the seed bank. In 1879, botanist William Beal put seeds from 20 species in glass bottles and buried them 20 inches deep. Every 5, 10, or 20 years scientists have dug up a bottle of his seeds to see which ones germinate. In 1980 they were able to germinate moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and common mallow (Malva neglecta), over 100 years after their burial. 
So, the natural cycles of disturbance may play within these time limits, but we are not convinced that anthropogenic disturbances play by the rules. Like the story of the Romanov family, we have the alarming capacity to eliminate a whole lineage in one dark night.

Hell Creek Formation

Hell Creek Formation badlands below the red line, Ludlow Formation Badlands above the red line. 
Photo 10/4/06 in Corson County, SD.

Of moving-pictures fame, the Hell Creek formation is a series of greyish, mostly bedded, freshwater claystone, siltstone, mudstones, and sandstones and lesser amounts of lignite. Notice the rust-colored rocks in the foreground. In our travels, that has been a telltale marker of the HCF. It was deposited during the Cretaceous period at the end of the Mesozoic Era. It contains sedimentary features such as siderite nodules, mud cracks, raindrop impressions, ripple marks, and bird and animal tracks. It has produced many excellent and renowned dinosaur skeletons, including Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. 
The Ludlow formation is of more recent origin and lies on top of the Hell Creek formation and dates to the early Paleogene (Tertiary) period at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. Much like the Hell Creek formation, it is composed of bedded claystones, siltstones, mudstones, and sandstones interlayered with lignite. It is distinguished from the Hell Creek formation by the persistence of lignite and a brownish hue.
The fossil is likely to be a fragment of a Triceratops shield, with what appear to be the blood vessel tracks. There are innumerable Triceratops fragments scattered across the Hell Creek Formation. Ultimately, the species was the victim of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event, wherein three-quarters of the earth's plant and animal species went extinct in a very short period of time, including almost all dinosaurs, many marine invertebrates, many land animals, and many angiosperms. Current theory holds that it was caused by a celestial Doomsday Machine, a meteor that hit the Yucatan Peninsula with the force of 100 million atomic bombs, incinerating terrestrial life with an infared radiation pulse, dusting the planet in iridium, shrouding it in darkness and sulfuric acid aerosols, and plunging it into an impact winter. 
Should have sold while they had a chance.



Ground Nest

Photo 9/28/06, Corson County. SD

















This is probably a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) nest. It's made out of Artemisia cana sticks, in an isolated location, no closer than 1.43 miles from any human habitations. No bones, feathers, or other signs of activity at the time of the photo. 
No surprise. In the early 1900's, North Dakota was referred to as the "ferruginous-rough-leg state" because of the abundance of the species. At that time North Dakota had vast, unbroken prairie, ideal Ferruginous Hawk habitat. The hawk thrives in expansive, open, arid grasslands and shrub-steppe communities. 
But that was then. A century of agricultural, residential, and commercial development has degraded their habitat. Thus, their numbers have declined across their range. 
Here are some details: Ferruginous Hawks are very susceptible to agricultural or human disturbance. They will select nest sites to avoid human habitation, avoid nesting within 0.7 mile of an occupied building, and may be less productive in areas with disturbance, or may abandon nests if disturbed too often by human activity. Historically, nests were most often ground nests on grassy overlooks in native prairie, less often in trees or rocks, occasionally in peripheral, isolated trees. More recently, due to pressures from predators, their nesting preferences have become isolated trees, haystacks, and power line towers.
This preference for large, unbroken habitats suggests that Ferruginous Hawk is an interior species. Interior species are adversely affected by highly fragmented habitats and prefer the interior of large, unbroken, relatively undisturbed habitats. Here is a quote from the USDA:
"Fragmentation of a landscape reduces the area of original habitat and increases the total lineal feet of edge, favoring species that inhabit edges at the expense of interior species that require large continuous patches. Ecologists, such as Wilcox and Murphy, believe that habitat fragmentation is the most serious threat to biological diversity and is the primary cause of the present extinction crisis." 

Extinction crisis. That's for another day. Should I live to see it.
https://prod.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_015259.pdf

Bullion Butte, ND

Southwestern Billings County, ND. Photo 6/3/03; Penstemon albidus in the foreground


There be better buttes but this be a butte.

This is a 3350-foot tall butte, rising about 1000 feet above the Little Missouri River which is 1.5 miles to the northeast. The cliffs along the rim of the butte are about 120 feet high. Prairie Falcons nest in the rocky rim and the overhangs and caves have sheltered mountain lions. The winds get strong up high on the prairie, nothing holds them back.

This butte is one of several dozen prominent buttes in the western Dakotas (Thunder, Sentinel, Square, Round Top, Haystack, Castle Rock...). They are the product of differential erosion, where erosion occurs at differing rates in a unit of land due to varying hardnesses of the surface material. The harder material that remains while the rest of the softer surface material erodes away is called a caprock. The landform that is created by the caprock is called a butte, a reminder of the elevated plateau that once was.

Climbing to the summit of Bullion Butte in low hanging clouds and a cold mist, one might expect to discover a lost world of Titanotheres, Oreodonts, and Entelodonts peacefully grazing on the short grasses as a giant meteorite streaks overhead towards Chesapeake Bay. No, not today. But, these summits have some unique plant species generally not found on the surrounding plains that may be relicts of the pre-Pleistocene Ice Age landscape, the elevated plateau. One species is Phlox alyssifolia. The sideslopes, scree, and talus surrounding the butte have thousands of specimens. But it is not found on the surrounding plains. It is thought that the species had a wider distribution on the elevated landscape that was eroded away. These remaining populations are relict populations, like the buttes, reminders of what once was.



Keystone Species

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), McKenzie County, ND. Photo 8/11/15. 
Assassin.


Although widespread and numerous, their numbers are declining. They are considered rare in some western states and Canada. These birds are strongly dependent upon prairie dog town burrows.

This is the story: It is estimated that there were 1 billion prairie dogs in North America before European settlement. As a result of widespread deliberate poisoning, conversion of prairie to cropland, and the introduction of sylvatic plague, the acreage and population of prairie dogs saw a 90-98% decline from the year 1900. This eradication has had unintended and unforeseen consequences. The landscape features created by prairie dogs support a host of other species, including the Burrowing Owl. A quote from Miller, 2000:

"Nine of the species depended on prairie dogs. Abundance data for an additional 20 species indicated the opportunistic use of prairie dog colonies, and abundance data for another 117 species was lacking on or off colonies, but their life history indicated that they could potentially benefit from prairie dog activities." 


In so doing, the prairie dog is considered a keystone species. Quoting from Miller again, a keystone species "must exert an effect, the effect must be larger than predicted by their abundance, and the effects should be unique." In other words, they have an outsized influence on the species around them and an exceptional number of those species rely upon them.  




The unintended and unforeseen consequence: As prairie dogs declined, so did many of those 146 species around them. The most notable example of this was the black-footed ferret, which dines almost exclusively on prairie dogs. As prairie dogs were eradicated, the ferret followed, nearly to extinction. By 1981, only one small colony in Wyoming remained, and in 1985, it barely survived an outbreak of canine distemper, another introduced disease. Today, there are about 300 of them at captive-breeding facilities and they have been introduced into the wild at 28 locations to date. Four locations have self-sustaining populations. It is estimated that there are hundreds of ferrets in the wild today. Distemper, plague, and inbreeding threaten to usher them out of existence and into museum displays. 


At one time there were tens of thousands. 


https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2000_uresk_d003.pdf