Plague affecting prairie dog populations?

Farm Forum

With much of the snow melting, and labeling of the chemical products registered for prairie dogs allowing use for some time yet, some opportunity remains this winter for control. Before initiating chemical control measures however, landowners would be advised to make sure prairie dog towns are active.

Several recent news stories have relayed the incidence of sylvatic plague, the term assigned to cover all forms of plague in wild animals, which is affecting prairie dogs in various locations across the U.S. Sylvatic plague is believed to have been introduced into the North American prairie ecosystem around 1899, and was first documented in a prairie dog colony near Lubbock, Texas, in 1946. A 1999 article states that plague has been active in black-tailed prairie dog populations in the northern Great Plains only within the last decade although it has been present for much longer.

One source states that few if any healthy prairie dog complexes currently exist in the Southern Plains within the United States. Another article states that sylvatic plague was first detected in South Dakota in 2004, and has since been confirmed on the Fort Pierre National Grassland, the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, in Badlands National Park and on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Other reports indicate that the plague may be affecting prairie dogs on private land as well.

In cases where people have contracted the disease, it is usually referred to as bubonic plague. When people contract the disease, it is usually from coming in contact with an infected rodent (such as a rat, a squirrel, or a prairie dog) or their fleas. Before the advent of modern medicine, bubonic plague struck the human population in epidemic proportions every few centuries. Today, improved sanitation practices and modern insecticides and antibiotics have reduced the threat of plague epidemics in developed countries like the United States. According to an article in late-November, 2012, there had not been any confirmed cases of the plague in people in South Dakota as of that time.

Although it is said to be a rare occurrence, humans can contract the plague. Modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but treatment must begin promptly. Symptoms include swollen and tender lymph glands accompanied by fever, chills, headache and extreme exhaustion. Although humans contracting the plague is said to be rare, it only makes sense to take precautions. People are advised to keep themselves and their pets flea-free and away from plagued areas. If you are working in or around a prairie dog town, take steps to minimize your exposure.