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Lewis and Clark in North Dakota:
Wildlife Then & Now


Barking Squirrel or Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Past Squirrel Distribution Map of North Dakota Present Squirrel Distribution Map of North Dakota
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Barking Squirrels and a Ghost (Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and Black-footed Ferrets)

Lewis and Clark were captivated by prairie dogs and made frequent notes in their journals about these curious animals. In fact, they sent a cage with a live prairie dog back to President Jefferson from Fort Mandan. Prairie dog towns dotted the prairies of North Dakota south and west of the Missouri River. These towns ranged in size from several hundred to several thousand acres. Prairie dogs remained abundant until settlement of southwestern North Dakota in the 1880s and 1890s. Poisoning rapidly eliminated many of the towns and by 1920 few prairie dog towns remained in the state. It is estimated that prairie dogs now occupy about one percent of their former range. Today, black-tailed prairie dogs can be easily viewed at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in scattered dog towns on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Sioux County, and the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck.

Although held in high esteem by Indian tribes of the northern Great Plains, Lewis and Clark apparently never saw or recognized black-footed ferrets during their expedition. This animal remained a secret to the scientific community until 1851. The lives of black-footed ferrets are so dependent upon prairie dogs (more than 85 percent of their diet), that their fate was sealed once the poisoning of dog towns was underway. Unverified sightings continue to be reported in the state, but for all practical purposes they are a ghost of North Dakota's past. Captive black-footed ferrets may be viewed at the Dakota Zoo.

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