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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

On Guard

Air Date: Week of

Prairie dog on guard jumps and barks. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada is one of North America’s few remaining natural wild prairies. Walking across the dry ground, writer Mark Seth Lender observed a prairie dog town and other creatures of the plains, and the prairie dog on guard watched him suspiciously in return.


CURWOOD: Now, as that story demonstrated, prairie dogs are to the prairie what krill is to the ocean. Without them, that sea of grass is a dead zone. But that wasn’t what most struck Mark Seth Lender, when he visited a prairie dog town in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. No, what impressed him the most was those little dogs’ bravery.

Hero: Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

LENDER: Dog on Guard does a jump-up bark, jump-up bark again. And all over Prairie Dog Town all the other dog guards jump-up back: below that ridge; up on the knoll; across, in the open, below the shadow of the mesa that rises like a wall. Must’ve seen some thing, some one. Got them started like the tattoo on a child’s tin drum. Could have been a hawk rolling on silent wing in the bright morning air. Could have been coyote, hungry enough, prowling the prairie on a daytime walk. Coulda been prairie rattlesnake sliding across the sunlit road with her rattle in the air. But our eyes are pretty much as good as any Dog of the Prairie, and I haven’t seen a thing round here. Perhaps they only jump-up bark to say: “I’m at my post, I am on guard, I’ve got your back.”

And the prairie dogs not on guard go about their business:

Dog, lying low.
Three dogs standing up.
Dog chewing on a blade of grass like some old farmer.
Young dog all stretched out on the black earth to cool herself…

Prairie dog chews a blade of grass like an old farmer. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

But now Dog on Guard crouches like a spring held in place by the thickness of a hair. And it’s jump-up bark nose in the air mouth in a howling shape. This time quite clear what he sees:


Three nights ago badger came here on a raid. Tore the hell out of that mound over there like a steam shovel on a bad-drunk-day. Claw marks in the soft dry earth, square and long and straight (and sharp as a cut nail rake). And, on the parched clay where water puddled in the rains (the cracked landscape laid out like tiles on some abandoned floor) there are skulls. A jawbone, incisors pointing up like tusks. A skeleton where a ferruginous hawk made a kill, bones laid out in perfect parallels…

Prairie dog nightmares. And us, our kind, the very worst of them:

10 yards –
5 yards –
10 feet –

The closer I get the faster that guard dog barks, clipped and tight, the tone ascending:

White-tailed doe crosses the road at a run.
- Dog on Guard does not move.
Burrowing owl tucks out of sight.
- Dog on Guard just stares.
Big Bison Bull resting on his side, raises his great head, down in the arroyo way down there…
- Dog on Guard stands firm, until the last dog is safely underground all over Prairie Dog Town.

Writer Mark Seth Lender recorded some of the prairie dog's calls

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Red moon rising on the red prairie, full as a rising prairie sun. When day comes it all begins again: Dog on Guard. Just like the day before (and the day before that), if he survives the night.

CURWOOD: Mark Seth Lender in Grasslands National Park, and there are photos at our website, LOE.org.



Grasslands National Park

More about the Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Wes Olson guided Mark Seth Lender at Grasslands National Park

Learn more about visiting Saskatchewan’s Grasslands

About writer Mark Seth Lender


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