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Prairie Dog Plague

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Liberty Belle

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Wanted: a few plague infested prairie dogs. Name your price.

Plague may force ferrets from basin
By Steve Miller, Journal Staff Writer

For the second time in a year, sylvatic plague has been found in prairie dog populations in South Dakota, this time in a huge prairie dog colony on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The discovery in recent weeks of two infected prairie dogs about 10 miles northwest of Oglala has prompted Indian Health Service officials to urge residents to take precautions to prevent getting plague, although they say the risk to humans is relatively low.

The plague discovery also has federal wildlife experts worried about black-footed ferrets reintroduced into Conata Basin about 30 miles northeast of the plague discovery site. Ferrets, as well as prairie dogs — the ferrets' primary food source — are susceptible to plague, experts say. If the plague approaches Conata Basin, the ferrets might be trapped and moved elsewhere.

Last September, a prairie dog infected with plague was found in western Custer County, the first confirmed case of plague in South Dakota wildlife in recent history.

The new cases were discovered after local ranchers and Bureau of Indian Affairs range surveyors noticed a marked drop in the number of prairie dogs in parts of the huge colony on the southwest part of the reservation, according to Diane Mann-Klager, regional wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The colony is considered one of the largest prairie dog complexes in the world.

Staff with the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Parks and Recreation Authority and the state Game, Fish & Parks Department collected dead prairie dogs in the colony for testing. Two carcasses submitted by the tribe tested positive for sylvatic plague, one on July 28 and the other last week, Mann-Klager said.

Indian Health Service and tribal officials asked local residents to take preventive measures such as getting rid of fleas on their pets and eliminating rodents in and around their homes, according to Joe Amiotte, supervisory sanitarian in the IHS office at Pine Ridge. Animal health experts say domestic cats are particularly susceptible to getting plague.

People should avoid handling dead animals with their bare hands, Amiotte and other experts said. The primary risk is getting bitten by fleas that carry the plague. Smaller rodents such as mice and rats can carry the disease longer, but prairie dogs seem to die quickly, Amiotte said.

But, Amiotte noted, even in the Southwest, where plague is prevalent in prairie dogs, there have been an average of only 13 human cases each year.

If the risk to humans is low, the risk to the endangered black-footed ferrets reintroduced into Conata Basin nine years ago could be high, according to Scott Larson, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist in Pierre.

Larson said ferret project officials are probably going to dust parts of the basin with insecticide to kill plague-bearing fleas.

So far, there is no evidence of plague in the ferret areas.

But he said if the plague moves toward the basin, moving the ferrets elsewhere could be an option.

Ferret project officials here have been talking to wildlife scientists elsewhere who have experience with plague. "They say (the discovery) is a sufficient trigger that we should be scrambling to take action," Larson said Wednesday in a phone interview.

The ferret population in the basin has remained at about 200 adults for the past several years, he said.

Plague devastated one black-footed ferret reintroduction project near Fort Belknap, Mont., a few years ago, according to Mike Lockhart, black-footed ferret recovery coordinator for the Fish & Wildlife Service. "They released 36 ferrets before they found out there was plague," Lockhart said. "It essentially annihilated everything, prairie dogs and ferrets."

But the Conata Basin ferrets probably wouldn't be moved unless there was a huge outbreak of plague, Lockhart said.

Part of the problem is where to relocate them. "There's not a lot of places to put ferrets right now," he said.

Conata Basin lies within Buffalo Gap National Grassland, part of the Nebraska National Forest. Although there is no evidence of plague on the grassland yet, forest officials will monitor the situation closely, according to public affairs officer Jerry Schumacher at forest headquarters in Chadron, Neb. Forest officials last week announced a plan to begin controlling prairie dogs in parts of the grassland to prevent their encroachment onto nearby private ranch land. The plan is drawing fire from wildlife conservation groups.

The Conata Basin project has been the most successful reintroduction in the country, partly, wildlife officials believe, because South Dakota prairie dogs had been plague-free for so long.

One researcher Larson talked to said 2005 has been the worst year for plague in Western states in many years. "So maybe this is just an incursion this year," Larson said. "That's what we're hoping."

Meanwhile, wildlife officials are increasing monitoring for plague, Larson said, including blood tests on coyotes.

Coyotes that eat plague-infected prairie dogs develop an antibody that shows up in the blood.

After last year's plague discovery in western Custer County, GF&P staff tested for plague in Custer, Pennington, Fall River and Shannon counties. None of those tests came up positive, according to Art Smith, wildlife-damage management program administrator for the GF&P.

Smith said the plague discovery would have no immediate effect on the state's prairie dog control measures on private land. Prairie-dog poisoning began last week in Bennett County and will continue throughout the fall, Smith said.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or [email protected]

August 18, 2005
http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/articles/2005/08/18/news/local/news05.txt
 

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