Did people ever eat prairie dogs?

Prairie dogs are rodents that live in underground burrows in grasslands across North America. They are a keystone species, meaning they play an important role in maintaining the prairie ecosystem. Prairie dogs were an important food source for Native American tribes and early settlers. While not commonly eaten today, there is some evidence that people did eat prairie dogs in the past.

Quick overview of prairie dogs as a food source

  • Prairie dogs are large rodents that live in complex underground burrows and colonies called “towns” in the grasslands of North America.
  • They were an important food source for many Native American tribes including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche among others.
  • Prairie dogs were easy to hunt as they gathered in large numbers above ground during the day. Native Americans hunted them for meat, which they roasted over fires or dried for preservation.
  • Early American settlers and pioneers also ate prairie dogs when other food was scarce. They were known as “prairie squirrels” and considered good eating.
  • Prairie dogs are not commonly eaten today, but were clearly part of the diet for certain groups historically.

Native American tribes ate prairie dogs

Prairie dogs were an important food source for many Native American tribes that lived on the Great Plains. Tribes known to eat prairie dogs included:

  • Sioux
  • Cheyenne
  • Kiowa
  • Comanche
  • Pawnee
  • Crow
  • Blackfoot
  • Arapaho

These tribes hunted prairie dogs primarily for their meat. Since the rodents live in large colonies, they were easy to hunt in big numbers. The prairie dog towns provided an abundant, reliable food source for the tribes.

According to accounts, the meat was roasted directly over a fire or in embers. The crisp skin was considered the best part. Alternatively, the prairie dogs would be skinned, dressed, and dried to create pemmican. This preserved meat product provided sustenance during hard winters.

Prairie dogs were especially important to the tribes as a good source of protein and fat. Other common meats like bison, deer, antelope and rabbit were quite lean. Prairie dogs had more fat content in comparison. The additional fat and calories gave prairie dog meat an advantage over other wild game.

Beyond food, many tribes used prairie dogs for other purposes. The skins were tanned and used for robes and blankets. Even the bones and teeth could be fashioned into various tools and ornaments. For the Native Americans, the prairie dog was a vital natural resource.

Early American pioneers ate prairie dogs

When European settlers began moving west across America in the 1800s, they also relied on prairie dogs as a food source when needed. The rodents became known as “prairie squirrels” by the pioneers.

Written accounts from the time period describe prairie dogs being hunted and eaten by white settlers. They were especially useful when other provisions ran low on long wagon train journeys westward.

In his journal along the Oregon Trail in 1839, explorer Thomas J. Farnham wrote:

“Of these prairie dogs we have caught a number sufficient for a mess. By the majority of our camp they were considered excellent eating. To my taste they were quite palatable—their flesh very white.”

Historian Washington Irving also recorded prairie dogs being eaten during a buffalo hunting expedition on the plains in 1835:

“As we were seated around the fire this evening, speculating on the state of the buffalo beyond these mysterious hills, there was a sudden Trio! Trio! heard in the prairie. All were instantly at gaze, and beheld three of the rascally prairie dogs seated upon their hind legs at the mouth of their burrow, yelping away with all their might…The moment the hunters caught sight of them, there was a universal cry—’A prairie dog! A prairie dog! Shoot! Shoot!’ Off went several rifles at the same moment. The poor little animals bounded into the air, and one of them, shot through the head, rolled over lifelessly on the gravelly soil.”

So while considered a small game species, pioneers clearly took advantage of prairie dogs for meat when traveling through the Great Plains just as Native Americans had done. The rodents helped supplement food supplies in their journey across the American West.

Prairie dogs declined but were eaten into the 20th century

As settlers moved in, prairie dog numbers began declining sharply due to habitat loss, eradication programs, and overhunting. Towns that once spanned thousands of acres shrunk to just hundreds or dozens of acres in size. But even as their numbers dropped, prairie dogs were still occasionally eaten by settlers, ranchers, and other plains residents well into the 20th century according to written accounts.

In the 1890s, naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton wrote that some westerners still ate baked or fried prairie dog paired with wild berries or currants for breakfast. In the early 1900s, members of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico told anthropologists that when food was scarce, they would eat prairie dog baked in hot coals along with wild spinach.

As recently as June 2021, a newspaper interviewed 93-year-old rancher Dean Zwicker who grew up eating prairie dog during the Great Depression in the Sandhills of Nebraska. He described it as good meat.

So while the scale had changed, prairie dogs were still sporadically eaten by people living on the Great Plains during historical times when other food was not readily available.

Nutritional value of prairie dogs

Since they were an occasional food source for certain groups historically, what is the nutritional makeup of prairie dogs that made them worth hunting?

Here is a comparison of the nutritional value per 100g of cooked prairie dog meat versus other common animal protein sources:

Animal Calories Fat(g) Protein(g)
Prairie Dog 193 12.3 19.4
Beef 250 15 26
Bison 143 3.5 22.1
Chicken 190 7.7 28.9
Rabbit 206 9.7 30.2

As the data shows, prairie dog meat provided a good source of protein comparable to other meats. Prairie dog meat is especially high in fat content relative to very lean meats like bison. The higher fat composition would have provided more calories and energy.

Research has found prairie dog meat contains healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats similar to fish and avocados. The meat provides B-vitamins, iron, and zinc as well.

The combination of protein, fat, and micronutrients would have helped support Native Americans and pioneers when wildlife was scarce and they relied on prairie dogs as a food source. Even today, the nutritional profile indicates prairie dog remains a viable form of sustenance.

Preparation methods for cooking prairie dog

Historically, there were a variety of methods used to cook prairie dog meat:

  • Roasting over open fire – This was a common preparation method used by Native Americans. The whole prairie dog carcass was impaled on a stick or skewer and roasted over flames. The skin and outer layer became crispy while the inside remained moist.
  • Baking in coals or ashes – As an alternative to roasting, the prairie dog could be wrapped in leaves or clay and buried in the hot coals or ashes of a fire to bake. This slow-cooking tenderized the meat.
  • Pemmican production – After roasting or baking, prairie dog meat was commonly dried into jerky. The meat could then be pounded into a powder and mixed with hot tallow or fat and berries to produce pemmican. This preserved meat product provided nutrients during harsh winters.
  • Frying – Settlers would cook prairie dog in skillets or pots with hot oil or lard over a campfire. Frying enhanced the flavor and texture of the meat.
  • Stewing – Prairie dog meat could be added to stews cooked in a pot over a fire. Stewing helped tenderize the meat in a flavorful soup or broth.
  • Baking – Later pioneers would bake whole prairie dog carcasses or pieces in ovens when they had access to more modern cooking equipment. Baking evenly cooked the meat at high heat.

These methods allowed people to cook the abundant prairie dog meat safely and efficiently over fires in a palatable way. The cooking enhanced the flavors and made the meat easier to chew and digest.

Taste and texture of cooked prairie dog

People who have eaten prairie dog meat have provided first-hand descriptions of its taste and texture:

  • Taste – The flavor is often described as being similar to greasy chicken or rabbit, though sometimes with a mild nutty or gamey quality.
  • Texture – The meat tends to be tender with a fine grain. The texture is moist rather than dry or tough.
  • Appearance – When cooked, the meat is light gray or white in color internally with browned or crispy skin externally.

The high fat content provides juiciness and flavor. Roasting, frying, or stewing helps bring out thebest taste. The meat pulls apart easily and is suitable for stews. The taste and texture make prairie dog palatable and appetizing when cooked properly.

Some people compare it to dark chicken meat with a unique wild, earthy quality. Overall, it was fit for human consumption which is why it served as a food source.

Is eating prairie dogs unhealthy or dangerous?

Some may wonder if eating prairie dogs poses any health risks:

  • Trichinosis – Trichinosis is a concern with eating undercooked wild game meat. However, testing found extremely low rates of trichinosis in prairie dogs, so this is unlikely to be an issue.
  • Plague – Prairie dogs can carry plague. However, thorough cooking eliminates any plague bacteria present, so this does not pose a risk.
  • Tularemia – Tularemia is another disease prairie dogs can carry. Again, cooking the meat properly removes any danger.
  • Parasites – Simple precautions like cleaning and fully cooking the meat mitigate any risk from parasites.

There are no unique health dangers associated with prairie dogs that proper hunting, preparation, and cooking cannot address. They do not carry any diseases transmissible to humans that cooking does not kill. Well-cooked prairie dog meat is safe to eat.

Is hunting and eating prairie dogs legal?

Currently, prairie dogs are protected under state laws throughout most of their habitat range. Unregulated hunting is illegal and often unethical given depleted populations. However, some regulated hunting for food is allowed:

  • South Dakota allows landowners to sell permits for hunting prairie dogs for food on private lands.
  • Montana allows properly licensed and permitted hunting of prairie dogs for food under certain restrictions.
  • Native American tribes may be granted special allowances for hunting prairie dogs for cultural ceremonies and food on tribal lands.
  • In Colorado, regulated taking of prairie dogs as food is allowed in certain counties.

So in a limited number of cases, regulated harvesting of prairie dogs for meat is legal. But unrestricted, unlicensed hunting is not allowed given conservation concerns. Any hunting must follow all state laws carefully. Most cases require permits obtained in advance.

Availability of prairie dog meat for purchase

While legal to hunt in certain regulated scenarios, prairie dog meat cannot be freely sold as a food source today. There are a few instances where it may be available:

  • Native American Reservations – Some reservations may allow tribal members to sell prairie dog meat to other members.
  • Ranchers – In parts of Montana, ranchers can sell permits to harvest prairie dogs on their lands. The landowner may sell the actual meat.
  • Online Classifieds – People who legally harvest prairie dogs may in some cases sell the meat online through classified ads.
  • Exotic Meat Dealers – A few specialty exotic meat suppliers may obtain and sell legally harvested prairie dog meat.

However, supply is very limited and finding prairie dog meat for purchase requires effort. There are no mainstream commercial options for buying prairie dog meat currently. Any sellers must abide by applicable state and federal regulations.

In most instances, the only way to legally obtain prairie dog meat would be hunting it oneself under proper permitting. The meat cannot be sold commercially otherwise due to wildlife protection laws and low, regulated harvest levels.

Prairie dog meat remains a historical curiosity

In summary, prairie dogs were clearly eaten as survival food by Native Americans and American pioneers historically. But current legal protection and population declines mean they are no longer a viable food source. Modern diners cannot freely buy and consume prairie dog meat even if they wanted to try it.

The idea of eating prairie dogs invokes curiosity about our historical relationship with the land and its flora and fauna. But the heyday of eating prairie dog has largely passed. While it may have been more common decades or centuries ago, prairie dog meat remains a historical footnote, not a current food staple.


To conclude, archaeological evidence and written accounts confirm that Native American tribes and American pioneers did occasionally consume prairie dogs for sustenance. The meat provided protein, fat, and nutrients to supplement lean wild game when food was scarce. Accounts describe prairie dog meat as pleasant tasting when cooked properly.

However, unregulated hunting severely depleted prairie dog numbers over the last two centuries. Legal protection and conservation efforts make random consumption of prairie dogs unethical and illegal today. Highly limited harvesting for food may be allowed in certain areas under permit. But the days of eating prairie dog meat as a common practice have largely passed. While prairie dogs were eaten in the past, they are no longer used as a food source in modern times.

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