Prairie dogs are a type of ground squirrel native to the prairies of North America. They have historically been eaten by Native Americans and early settlers, but are not commonly consumed today. The flavor of prairie dog meat is often described as being similar to rabbit or chicken, being lean with a mild flavor.
Prairie dogs are herbivorous burrowing rodents that live in large colonies or “towns” in the grasslands and prairies of central and western North America. There are five different species of prairie dogs: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs. Of these, the black-tailed prairie dog is the most widespread and numerous.
Prairie dogs get their name from early settlers who thought they resembled small dogs with their bark-like alarm call and ability to stand upright on their hind legs to survey their surroundings. They are highly social animals that live in large family groups and extensive burrow systems known as prairie dog towns, which can cover hundreds of acres.
These communal rodents were once considered a nuisance animal by farmers and ranchers, who viewed them as pests that competed with livestock for grazing land. As a result, prairie dog populations declined significantly in the 20th century due to large scale eradication programs using poisoned grain and other methods. However, in recent decades, there has been greater recognition of the ecological importance of prairie dogs and efforts made to conserve them.
Prairie dogs are now protected under state regulations in the US, and one species, the Mexican prairie dog, is classified as endangered. While small-scale recreational hunting of some species is still permitted in certain states, commercial trapping and unregulated control programs are now prohibited. Their burrowing activity and grazing changes the landscape, which benefits various plant and animal species that depend on prairie dog ecosystems.
History of Eating Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs have been eaten by humans for centuries. Many Native American tribes, including the Sioux, Comanche, Kiowa, Navajo, and Apache considered prairie dogs to be a tasty delicacy and relied on them as a valuable source of meat. Early European explorers observed tribes hunting prairie dogs by flooding their burrows to force them out or using sticks to probe the tunnels. The animals could then be quickly clubbed or gathered by hand.
Later American pioneers and settlers who moved west also ate prairie dog meat, especially when other food was scarce. Prairie dog “towns” were easy to locate on the plains, so the animals provided a convenient protein source. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recorded eating prairie dogs during their expedition in 1804-1806. In his journal, Lewis noted theFlavor of the meat is much like that of the rabbit, tho’ it differed considerably in the cooking, roasting requiring nearly double the time of the latter to put it sufficiently done.
During the early 1900s, when efforts to eradicate prairie dogs from western rangelands were at their peak, large-scale gatherings called “prairie dog drives” were held. At these community events, hundreds of people would surround a prairie dog colony and force the animals out of their burrows by breaking down tunnels, flooding them with water, or fumigating them. Each family tried to collect as many prairie dogs as possible for food. Tens of thousands of prairie dogs might be killed during a single prairie dog drive.
The practice of eating prairie dog declined over the 20th century as commercial livestock production increased and populations underwent steep declines. Though some rural residents may still eat them occasionally, prairie dogs are not really considered a viable food source today. They are now viewed more as unique wildlife to be conserved rather than eliminated.
Flavor and Preparation
Those who have eaten prairie dog describe the meat as tasting like a cross between rabbit, chicken, and squirrel—a mildly flavored, lean white meat. Some find it comparable to goose or turkey, though with a slightly stronger flavor. Overall, the taste is said to be pleasant and mild without any distinctive gamey or greasy qualities.
Because prairie dogs are so lean, with very little fat, proper cooking methods are important to keep the meat moist and tender. Slow cooking methods like braising, stewing, or roasting work best. They can be prepared in any way suitable for chicken or rabbit. Traditional recipes include stewing, frying, breading and baking, or making into sausages. A vinegar-based marinade can help tenderize the meat before cooking.
Here are some recommended ways to cook prairie dog meat:
– Stew or braise chunks of prairie dog with vegetables in a slow cooker or Dutch oven. This allows the meat to become fall-off-the-bone tender.
– Make kebabs by alternating pieces of meat with vegetables on skewers. Roast or grill the kebabs, basting them with barbecue sauce as they cook.
– Bread paddle-shaped fillets with egg and breadcrumbs and pan fry until golden brown. Prairie dog “paddles” are considered the choicest cut of meat.
– Cook prairie dog sausage, combining the ground meat with spices and other ingredients like sage, peppers, or rice. Shape into patties and cook like regular sausage.
– Use prairie dog meat chunks or minced meat in savory pies, casseroles, or pasta sauces. The mild flavor pairs well with lots of different seasonings and vegetables.
Overall, most people find prairie dog meat to be tasty when properly prepared. It has been an important food source for many groups throughout history. While not commonplace today, it can make an interesting and flavorsome wild game dish.
Prairie dog meat is high in protein and relatively low in calories and fat compared to other meats. A 3 oz serving of roasted prairie dog contains around 123 calories, with 7 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbs, and 21 grams of protein (based on generic ground squirrel nutritional data, as specific values for prairie dog are unavailable).
Here is how the nutritional value of prairie dog compares to other cooked meats, per 3 oz serving:
|Beef (lean ground)
As you can see, prairie dog is lower in calories and fat compared to lean beef, chicken, and pork. It contains more protein per serving than beef. The nutritional makeup is most similar to rabbit meat.
The main benefits of prairie dog meat come from its leanness and high protein content without much saturated fat. Protein helps maintain and repair muscles while also making you feel full. The low fat and calorie content makes it a reasonably healthy meat choice.
Prairie dogs eat a diverse herbivorous diet of grasses, seeds, roots, and leaves in the wild. Their meat provides a good source of certain vitamins and minerals:
– Iron: supports healthy blood and carries oxygen throughout the body
– Zinc: boosts immune system function and wound healing
– Phosphorus: aids bone health and kidney function
– Potassium: helps muscles contract and regulates fluid balance
– Selenium: antioxidant that protects cells from damage
– Vitamin B12: needed to make DNA and red blood cells
Overall, prairie dog meat can be considered a nutritious component of an omnivorous diet, even though it is no longer a common menu item.
Potential Health Risks
While prairie dog meat is nutritious and lean, there are some potential health risks to consider before eating it.
One concern is the risk of contracting plague. Prairie dogs are susceptible to plague outbreaks caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Eating the raw or undercooked meat of an infected animal could transmit the disease to humans, leading to symptoms like fever, chills, and swollen lymph nodes. Properly cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 165°F kills any potential plague bacteria. Avoiding contact with wild prairie dogs that look sick is another precaution.
Another potential risk is consuming parasites like ticks or fleas that may be present on wild prairie dogs. Proper cleaning and skinning of the meat reduces this risk. Again, thorough cooking provides protection against most parasites.
There is also some debate about whether prairie dogs may accumulate high levels of heavy metals like lead or cadmium from the environment, leading to higher levels in their meat. More research is needed on heavy metal contamination and prairie dog diet. This is likely not a major concern unless collecting prairie dogs from obviously polluted areas.
While any wild game carries certain natural risks, prairie dogs from regulated populations in healthy grassland ecosystems are unlikely to pose much threat when handled and cooked properly. Any meat should be inspected thoroughly and cooked to recommended temperatures to kill pathogens. With basic precautions, prairie dog meat can be safely enjoyed as a lean and eco-friendly protein source.
Legality of Eating Prairie Dogs
It is illegal to sell prairie dog meat commercially or harvest it without proper permits, but consumption itself is usually legal. Here are some key regulations regarding eating prairie dogs:
– Prairie dogs are classified as nongame wildlife and managed under conservation laws. In many states, a small game hunting license allows for limited harvesting for personal use.
– Limits exist for the number of prairie dogs that can be killed per day or season by an individual. Bag limits help restrict overharvesting from any one colony.
– Commercial sale of prairie dog meat is illegal. They cannot be trapped and sold for public consumption due to protected status concerns.
– Any harvesting from private or public lands requires appropriate licenses and landowner permission.
– Certain species have greater protections, such as the endangered Mexican prairie dog.
– Some tribal groups and rural communities may still consume prairie dogs traditionally. These practices are excluded from restrictions under special exemptions.
– Prairie dogs received federal protections under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, but these were removed in 2017. They are still covered by state and local laws.
When harvested responsibly and according to regulations, eating prairie dogs can be legal and sustainable. But care should be taken not to overexploit populations. Overall, they are not a commonly utilized game species today due to conservation status and limited commercial demand. Most prairie dog meat consumption occurs informally by rural residents.
Availability of Prairie Dog Meat
While people ate prairie dogs regularly at times in the past, demand has dropped dramatically over the past century. Prairie dog meat is very difficult to find for sale commercially today. There are a few potential ways to legally acquire prairie dog meat:
– Harvesting your own during designated hunting seasons with proper small game permits. This is allowed in certain western states like Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
– Receiving prairie dog meat as a gift from Native American tribes or western rural communities where traditional harvests still occur.
– Purchasing from private individuals who have legally harvested the animals for personal use, such as through classified ads. However, the commercial sale of prairie dog meat is illegal.
– Joining organized prairie dog shoots on private ranches that may provide the meat to participants.
– Trying any prairie dog dishes still served at certain restaurants on Native American reservations where food sovereignty exclusions apply.
But outside of these limited avenues, it is uncommon to find prairie dog meat for general public sale. Conservation laws now restrict commercial trade and discourage overexploitation of wild prairie dog populations.
So for most people, eating prairie dog meat remains a historical curiosity rather than a viable dining option. While it was once more widely available as a protein staple on the plains, changing ideals about wildlife preservation have contributed to its disappearance from common menus. The flavor and experience of eating prairie dogs is now essentially a novelty.
Substitutions for Prairie Dog Meat
For those looking to replicate the flavor and texture of prairie dog meat in recipes, several substitutes are available that provide a similar eating experience:
– Rabbit Meat – Wild rabbit has a mild taste and light color comparable to prairie dog. Domestic rabbit breeds are more readily available for purchase.
– Squirrel Meat – Tree squirrels like gray and fox squirrels have a delicate flavor reminiscent of prairie dogs.
– Chicken – A boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh cooked slowly works well. Choose smaller portions.
– Guinea Fowl – This lean poultry has a delicate flavor between chicken and wild birds.
– Frog Legs – Texture is similar to prairie dog paddles. Taste is light.
– Rattlesnake Meat – Prepared rattlesnake has a mild chicken-like quality.
– Game Birds – Pheasant, quail, dove and other wild birds can provide a light meat substitute.
When cooked properly, these alternatives can closely mimic the eating quality of prairie dog meat. While they lack the exact unique nuances, they provide a more accessible way to gain a similar gastronomic experience. With creative use of seasonings as well, the essence of historical prairie dog recipes can be reproduced.
Prairie Dog Meat in Culture
Though not commonly eaten now, prairie dogs were an important nutritional and cultural component of many Native American Plains tribes. Beyond just sustenance, various customs and traditions surround prairie dogs:
– Tribes like the Lakota Sioux celebrated “Prairie Dog Day” in early spring as an annual ceremonial prairie dog hunt.
– Parts of prairie dogs were sometimes used in sacred medicine bundles and rituals by holy men.
– Folklore from tribes describes prairie dogs as intelligent, playful animals. Some believe they are reincarnated ancestors.
– In legend, the prairie dog earned its bark-like call when it made a bet with a buffalo over who had the loudest voice.
– There are children’s songs in Lakota language about going out to hunt tadpoles and prairie dogs.
– Plains tribes developed techniques like probing sticks, grass fires, and flooding to efficiently harvest the burrowing rodents.
– Women were tasked with skinning and cleaning the animals after communal hunts.
Beyond food, prairie dogs held an important place in regional stories, ceremonies, and customs for Native Americans. They were respected for both their meat and their role in tribal culture. Even as a rarely eaten novelty today, they still represent an important part of Indigenous heritage.
While prairie dogs were historically viewed as both a nuisance and a valuable source of meat, they have more recently come to be seen as a unique wildlife species to be protected and celebrated. Conservation efforts have allowed their populations and ecosystem contributions to recover after extensive eradication programs.
The flavor of prairie dog meat is mild with similarities to rabbit, chicken, and squirrel. It can be cooked in various ways, though moist slow cooking methods work best. While still legally harvested in limited numbers, prairie dog meat has faded from popularity and availability due to both environmental sensitivities and lack of commercial demand.
Eating prairie dogs is now an obscure practice except among certain rural residents. But it endures as an insight into Native American diets, traditions, and connections with the natural world. Though no longer relied on as sustenance, prairie dogs remain embedded in regional culture, ecology, and history.