State veterinarians confirmed that plague is killing prairie dog colonies in the Thunder Basin National Grassland of northeastern Wyoming. Reports of plague have come in from other parts of the state as well.
The disease spreads by way of fleas, and can be deadly to humans and animals. Zack Walker of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says plague is always present in prairie dog populations, but it causes dramatic die-offs only once in a while. These events are difficult to predict, and can impact the predators that depend on prairie dogs to survive - including the federally endangered Black Footed Ferret.
Walker said his agency plans to start dropping baited vaccines into the part of Wyoming where black footed ferrets have been reintroduced. Right now, they treat colonies with a powder meant to prevent fleas.
“We may not do as much dusting if people were really concerned about having too high numbers of prairie dogs,” Walker said. “Basically, the big thing is to figure out where we need to keep populations and then focus our efforts in those areas.”
In places like the Thunder Basin, prairie dogs have been killed in large numbers because they often compete with livestock for food. Walker says these social and environmental pressures drove state biologists to designate them “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in their most recent non-game wildlife plan.
“The level of limiting factors has been very high, and the reason for that is the plague - there’s some other diseases that are out there - plus there’s a lot of control campaigns to remove populations here and there,” Walker said.
A group of stakeholders in the Thunder Basin has been meeting to create collaborative strategies for managing prairie dogs. To manage plague risk, the Wyoming Department of Health has advised people to be cautious around prairie dogs and other rodents. Humans have contracted plague in Wyoming at least six times since 1978.