Update: Sylvatic Plague and Tularemia Afflict Prairie Dogs in Badlands National Park

Black-tailed prairie dogs are highly sociable, a trait that facilitates the spread of infectious diseases like plague and tularemia. NPS photo.

Officials have confirmed the presence of sylvatic plague and tularemia in Badlands National Park. That’s bad news for the park’s prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, but visitors should be OK if they use common sense safety precautions.

Sylvatic plague, which was first detected in South Dakota in 2004, turned up last year in the prairie dog population of the Conata Basin just south of Badlands National Park. Since fleas spread plague from infected animals to healthy ones (and occasionally to humans as well), officials ordered a flea suppression campaign that entailed applying insecticides to prairie dog colonies over an area of about 11,000 acres. In addition, black-footed ferrets were captured and given plague vaccinations. It was fervently hoped that these measures would keep the disease from spreading to Badlands National Park, which not only harbors many thousands of prairie dogs, but also a small and struggling population of endangered black-footed ferrets that mainly feeds on prairie dogs.

Alas, about a week ago wildlife biologists confirmed that the prairie dog population in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area of the park is being assaulted by sylvatic plague. Tularemia (“rabbit fever”) has also been detected in one of the park’s prairie dog colonies. Both diseases sicken and kill prairie dogs, so this disease outbreak has the potential to decimate the park’s prairie dog population and perhaps undo much of the effort that’s been invested in reestablishing black-footed ferrets there.

Although few people in the U.S. have ever been infected by plague or tularemia, both diseases can be transmitted to humans and should be considered potentially dangerous. Park officials are advising visitors to take these common sense safety precautions to minimize the likelihood of infection:

• Be aware that potentially dangerous diseases can be transmitted to humans by way of tick or flea bites, animal bites and scratches, urine-contaminated water, and the inhaling of infectious aerosols.
• Apply DEET insect repellant to clothing and skin to avoid bites from fleas and ticks.
• Avoid handling sick or dead animals in the park.
• Do not allow pets to wander into prairie dog colonies where they may come into contact with disease-carrying fleas.
• See a doctor if you think that you may have been exposed to plague or tularemia.

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