Plague Kills Many Prairie Dogs and Black-Footed Ferrets in Grasslands Near Badlands National Park

Sylvetic plague not only kills black-tailed prairie dogs like this one, but also the black-footed ferrets that prey on them. Photo by Asiir via Wikipedia.

There is a huge prairie dog town in the Conata Basin, a 20-mile long portion of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland that lies just south of Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Conata Basin has proven to be the most successful of the nation’s 17
black-footed ferret
reintroduction sites.

Last May, sylvatic plague began to spread like wildfire through the Conata Basin. By August the deadly disease had spread to some 9,700 acres of the prairie, killing nearly all of the prairie dogs as well as about 100 of the 290 ferrets living in the 25,000-acre ferret management area.

This plague variant affects only wild animals, so it is dubbed sylvatic.

Spread by fleas and highly infectious, plague poses a dreadful threat to the ferrets. The mortality rate for non-vaccinated ferrets is virtually 100 percent. Because the plague kills prairie dogs, it also depletes the principal food source for surviving ferrets.

Plague has not yet been detected in Badlands National Park, and this encourages scientists to believe that a vigorous program that combines insecticide spraying and vaccination might spare the remaining black-footed ferrets in the park as well as the Conata Basin.

The hot, dry weather of summer slowed the spread of the disease in the basin, giving biologists precious time to spray and vaccinate before cooler, wetter weather arrives. A crew of four has been traveling the prairie in ATVs, spraying flea-killing insecticide dust into prairie dog burrows. They’ve treated over 7,000 acres so far in the Conata Basin and hope to do another 4,000 by fall.
Another crew, which operates at night, traps ferrets and vaccinates them. More than 60 ferrets have been vaccinated so far (15 of them twice, which is the recommended dosage).

We’ll know soon enough whether the spray-and-vaccinate campaign produces the desired protection in the Conata Basin and Badlands National Park. Sylvatic plague also remains a credible threat to the ferrets at Wind Cave National Park and other reintroduction sites in the region.

Comments

What dreadful man made act has caused this plague. It appears that the rampant global warming that we have caused by our abuses has bought some time forre the treatment process. Please send former VP Gore the information so he can use it in his next movie.

Calling plague a bad thing, or laying blame on humans for causing/worsening it, takes us into very tricky ground. Sylvatic plague -- called "sylvatic" because it infects wild animals, not domesticated ones -- is endemic in the prairies. Because this virulently infectious and relentlessly lethal disease is a natural phenomenon, not something that was introduced by human activities, we need to recognize that it has evolved and persisted because it serves a worthwhile purpose. (Ecologists know for dead certain that natural processes are very, very strongly disposed to rid the earth of species whose existence does not support other forms of life in some useful way.)

It's plain to see what's going on here. Plague emerges in prairie dog towns periodically, kills nearly all of the susceptible animals it infects, and then subsides or goes dormant until prairie dogs and other vulnerable species become numerous enough to support another major outbreak. Viewed dispassionately, plague is simply one of nature's tools for pruning populations that grow too large and create too much ecosystem disorder (described as excessive disruptions in energy flow and matter exchange). It may be one hell of a mental stretch to say that "plague is our friend," but plague is unquestionably good for the prairie dog population (a high-biotic potential species whose numbers must be kept in check one way or another) and good for the biosphere that nurtures us.

As for the rate at which the disease spreads, and the areas that may be impacted by plague, humans may indeed have something to do with that, though not necessarily what you think. If human activities have indeed contributed to global warming, as many scientists insist, prolonging the warm and dry conditions in the prairies may actually slow, not accelerate, the spread of sylvatic plague. Of course, if human activities somehow increase the duration of cooler and moister conditions, the opposite effect can be expected.

It gets even more complicated than that. Insecticide spraying campaigns that target the fleas that spread the disease may dampen or even prevent the spread of the disease to new areas. This is bound to have some negative effects as well as positive ones. That's because killing disease-carrying fleas to protect black-footed ferrets prevents the plague from performing its prairie-dog culling role in areas that need it. Eventually, that kind of human interference with natural processes has a backlash effect (translation: dangerously too-large prairie dog populations).

Humans can also contribute to the spread of sylvatic plague by accidentally or intentionally introducing the disease vector (animals harboring disease-bearing fleas) to new areas.

When I consider all of these things, it's hard for me to conclude that there's anything dreadful going on here, but I'll freely admit that I do get a bit nervous about the unintended consequences of the insecticide spraying campaign we've initiated to protect black-footed ferrets. Let's hope that those in charge of this spraying program understand that its impacts should be kept to to the absolute minimum needed to protect those ferrets.

It appears that the rampant global warming that we have caused by our abuses has bought some time forre the treatment process.

If I had read this statement in your dissertation, your defense would have failed immediately and I would have ousted you from the program. To what evidence do you attribute this lame-brained notion, that the sporadic / periodic appearance of virulent diseases is a man-made event, or a phenomenon with direct correlations to atmospheric conditions? Does your philosophy simultaneously apply across the continents, also laying blame for the epidemics of Marburg and Ebola at the feet of "global warming"? Am I to assume that, since the disease didn't actually exist with any prevalence prior to the mid-60's, that the HIV epidemic is global warming in origin as well? As is mersa, no doubt. To which specific branch of biological sciences do you attribute your degree sir / madam, and might I ask, which distinguished and learned institution of higher education is responsible for fostering these notions within the confines of their programs? Your claims are not only baseless, they are outright laughable, as is the Tennessee lunatic who touts his beliefs above all mankind and preaches conservation while wasting more personally than a community can save annually. Go ahead, send Al the data, and let him produce another movie. Maybe the folks at Sundance will see fit to have it nominated for Best Amateur Comedy of the Year.

Just when you think you've heard everything.

Anonymous queries:

"What dreadful man made act has caused this plague."
The Wikipedia Misanthropy entry defines & describes it as:
"... a general dislike, distrust, or hatred of the human species or a disposition to dislike and/or distrust other people. ... A misanthrope or misanthropist is a person who dislikes or distrusts humanity as a general rule."
Our English word for it comes from the Greek civilization, over 2,000 years ago. Other cultures & languages have their own words for the same thing. The phenomenon of misanthropy has been plainly visible to & described by alert observers since the advent of organized societies.

Green/Liberalism, environmental activists, and especially the concern for anthropogenic climate change have taken on increasingly dramatic & strident tones of misanthropy in recent years. In former decades, the preferred distinction of an environmentalist was to be a fine naturalist, but today it is considered more conventional & distinguished to style oneself as a warrior against humanity.

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition displays strong misanthropic themes. Mankind is fallen. Man is in sin. All must repent. Humankind must be punished. Environmentalism is not "religion", but is has increasingly taken on several of the peculiarities & liabilities of it.

It is hard to explain the prevalence & persistence of misanthropy, considering that it is patently a psychological & emotional disability. In this sense, it resembles a less-debilitating analogy to schizophrenia, in that it is a very widespread & common mental infirmity, or disease, which we would expect to be reduced to a much-lower incidence, by naturalistic processes.

Like other diseases, misanthropy ebbs & flows. There are times when it seems to have been in recession, while at other times we see it sweeping through the prairie dog colonies of human society, laying waste not so much to bodies & lives, but to the institutions that are the weave & warp of our culture.

Fascinating natural phenomenon, misanthropy.

Lone Hiker, I'm a bit puzzled by that reference to "your dissertation." What makes you think that the (anonymous) person who made that statement has a doctorate or is working on one?

Perhaps you didn't recognize the sarcasm! Everything bad gets blamed on global warming and my comments were intended to be tongue and cheek. In fact in VA they recently attributed the extended goldenrod season and resultant elevated allergies on global warming - egad! Actually, Bob wrote a pretty good article on the plague effecting the prairie dogs & ferrets and I should have left it at that. Sorry, Bob.

"To what evidence do you attribute this lame-brained notion, that the sporadic / periodic appearance of virulent diseases is a man-made event, or a phenomenon with direct correlations to atmospheric conditions?"

Bob-

I most certainly hope that the referenced statement does NOT come from a previous background or current program of study in biological sciences. My reference is specific to the position that had I been reviewing a thesis related to topics in virology, E&E research, pathogenic microbiology, biochemistry, molecular or genetic research on the specific pathogen mentioned in the article or other subject matter akin to communicable diseases in the rodent species on North America I would have most certainly not conferred upon the applicant the advanced degree that they were seeking. Even though my personal experience was with an advisor who wasn't above keeping things light-hearted in the lab during difficult times, by the same token he also made sure the research projects were directed such that we didn't tangentially alter our thought processes when things went awry. And the above quotation from anon would have most assuredly qualified as thought processes gone awry, unsubstantiated by common sense, current publications or conventional wisdom within the field of knowledge.

No, it didn't strike a chord with me as though the statement came directly or indirectly from anyone's program of study. Thank God.

Anonymous;

For sure, I took your sarcasm hook-line-and-sinker. ;-)

The reason I did, of course, is:

  • Going by Anonymous, I have no idea who's talking, and...
  • ... I read identical (but earnest!) language every day!

Actually the extended allergy season has nothing to do with goldenrod. The pollen of goldenrod is too large to be carried by the wind and cause allergies. The real culprit is likely ragweed.

Nope, missed the sarcasm completely due mainly to multiple references in prior threads pertaining to the same culprit as the basis for all the world's ills, along with the same self-righteous fool of an ex-VP being touted as the "hero" of the planet. Global warming advocates consistently point to carbon dioxide as the sole evil, which is by far not accurate, and also quote the Goremeister chapter and verse without any qualification or background on the matter, just parroting his position as though the research was their own. The planet is cyclical, like it or not, and unfortunately the "how, why and when" behind the process of it's timing to shift magnetic poles, alter orbital paths or axis orientation along with multiple other factors are not currently within the comprehension of mankind. Alas, it becomes a sensitive arena within which to open a conversation.

I offer my sincere apologies to any offended contributors. But I don't recant my position.

what is being done to try to protect it?

i dont understand what the plagueis what did it affect on these black footed ferrets i am a 7th grade student and want understand about this
i am writing a essay on a endangered animal of my choosing i just of happen to choose the black footed ferret but this is the one thing i dont seem
to understand please e mail me at

I see that these comments are a year old, but I thought it right to make a clarification. And while I actually am an environmental scientist working on their Phd, I don't see that as any reason to be rude or to use language that the average person can't understand.

"Sylvatic plague" essentially is just a phrase scientists use to refer to the version of a plague found in wild animals. Pretty much all mentions of plague refer to disease caused by one specific bacteria, Yersinia pestis. This is the exact same bacteria that caused the bubonic plagues you heard about in history classes. The general consensus is that it originated in Asia and then traveled over to Europe and eventually here to North America via travel in fleas on rodents like rats that moved with humans.

The point being, the "sylvatic plague" referred to in this article is certainly not endemic to the prairies of North America. Endemic implies not only native origin, but also that something is found only in that specific place, which in this case is false on both counts.

As far as the human measures taken to fight this issue go, I would agree that the implications are very tricky to determine accurately. While I don't think the mass application of pesticides is a sustainable solution, scientists must constantly weigh benefits and detriments in their efforts to undo the damages of the past. We can only hope that whoever is making these decisions is doing so in an informed and cautious way.

Hope that helped!

wat is actually killing them is the hunters

What makes this a biologically significant issue today is that for over 80 years, the prairie dog has been viewed as the enemy of domestic cattle in the West, and this was based on a notion that the prairie dog would compete with domestic cattle for available forage in a fixed (fenced) area. Because of this idea, prairie dogs have been and are today poisoned on publicly and privately owned grass/ranchlands. While a plague outbreak in this or that geographic region may have historically brought the ecosystem into "balance", as Mr. Janiskee suggests, the present day fact is that 80+ years of prairie dog genocide has brought populations down to approx. 2% of their historic range, which leaves the remaining animals in even greater peril when plague does enter an area. And because the Conata Basin and Badlands are the last best relatively large, contiguous shortgrass prairie ecosystem on our continent, this is/was the best place to reintroduce the black-footed ferret after it was literally brought back from the brink of extinction.
So, when plague threatens the prairie dogs and ferrets in the Conata Basin, Badlands, Pine Ridge, or anywhere else in the region, this means that the recent progress made in bolstering numbers and habitat for these species could be lost, and that very significant human efforts will be necessary to prevent at least one species, the black footed ferret, from vanishing from the earth.