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July 18, 2014 06:05 PM

National Park Officials Fight Plague In Prairie Dogs

Hot Springs, SD

Wind Cave National Park officials are working to protect prairie dogs from the plague, a bacterial infection that has devastated prairie-dog populations in outbreaks elsewhere.

But it isn't just prairie dogs that park officials are worried about. It's also the park's small population of endangered black-footed ferrets, which rely heavily on prairie dogs for food.

Signs of the bacterium that causes the plague have been found in fleas gathered in the park. Fleas spread the disease, which can also affect other animals and people -- although the risk to humans is low and timely medical treatment is effective.

But prairie dogs are especially susceptible to the disease, in lethal ways. And losses of more than 90 percent are common in outbreaks.

Greg Schroeder, chief of resource management at Wind Cave, said there haven't been any confirmed plague outbreaks among park prairie dogs, yet. But he and other park officials take the threat seriously.

"So we believe plague is in the landscape here," Schroeder says. "We haven't seen huge die-offs of prairie dogs. But we think it's only a matter of time, you know. We're kind of like a ticking time bomb, just waiting for the right environmental conditions."

They're fighting plague before the bomb goes off, however. They're testing an oral-vaccine that is likely to be an improvement on the currently method of dusting individual burrows in prairie dog towns with an insecticide that kills fleas. That's expensive and time consuming.

"Here what we're trying for is a different approach, where we try to get the vaccine to the prairie dogs but scatter it out on the town and have them go out and find it and eat it," Schroeder said. "And then right now what we're doing is we're trapping up those prairie dogs and testing them to see, you know, how many have eaten the bait and then what level of immune response each prairie dog that ate the bait got, and whether or not that's enough."

Working out of a cramped trailer out in a prairie dog colony in the eastern part of the park north of Hot Springs, wildlife specialists this week trapped and anesthetized prairie dogs to test them for signs that they had eaten the bait and were developing resistance to the plague. Other tests were done on the dogs as well, before they recovered and were released.

The work is aimed at helping prairie dogs, which also helps black-footed ferrets.

Ferrets feed almost entirely on prairie dogs. Sharply reduced prairie dog numbers will make it difficult to sustain the ferrets.

So research at Wind Cave, one of the areas where ferrets have been reintroduced, has implications to the bigger effort to save the black-footed ferret from extinction.

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