Prairie dog populations are being decimated by a plague across the Western US.
As the world slowly begins to recover from the devastating impacts of Covid-19, we should realize that we are not the only species currently struggling through a pandemic. Many other species cope with similar ongoing afflictions around the world. Birds, rodents, bats, and other mammals are all fighting the extensive spread of disease within their populations. Typically, fast expansion of viral infection usually remains within one species because the afflicting virus exploits a particular trait of the host species absent in other species.
Prairie dog and Black-footed ferret populations are also battling their own pandemic for survival. A bacterium known as Yersinia pestis has been plaguing both species in North America for decades. This pathogen is the same that caused the Black Death plague in 14th century Europe and is mostly carried from host to host by fleas. Although people may still contract this bacterial infection, antibiotics and immunizations have curtailed the danger to humans worldwide. However, mass outbreaks still occur in other mammals with the Western United States prairie dog (Cynomys sp.) populations currently under siege. Studies have shown this deadly plague can wipe out two-thirds of prairie dog colonies across some landscapes. This is bad news for not only prairie dogs, but also for Black-footed ferrets who exclusively depend on prairie dog colonies for food and shelter.
The endangered Black-footed ferret relies solely upon prairie dog colonies for survival.
Considered critically endangered since 1967, Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) are the rarest mammal in the world. Twice the species was thought to be extinct! Only after a 1981 discovery of an elusive wild population in Wyoming did North America’s only native ferret get a THIRD chance at survival. Since then, ferrets have been bred in captivity to restore wild populations with great success. From only 18 surviving individuals, an active captive breeding program has grown to six facilities across the country with thousands of ferrets being released back into the wild. Despite this ongoing recovery success, the main prey of Black-footed ferrets is being decimated by a plague. As prairie dog populations continuously decline, the future of ferrets also hangs in the balance.
The Badlands of South Dakota is one of the sites where prairie dogs and ferrets battle the lethal plague.
Thankfully, there is hope for both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Researchers at the USGS North American Wildlife Health Center were able to create a vaccine for the bacterium infection. Since both species are inherently shy and spend most of their time underground, immunizing most of the populations by injection is not feasible. So, veterinarians devised an edible treat laden with the vaccine that promotes plague immunity for both prairie dogs and ferrets alike. The trick being the vaccine only remains viable within the edible for five days when exposed to natural elements, and two doses are necessary to create immunity like our Covid-19 vaccines. How could we track down accurate locations of the secretive subterranean predators to provide the edible vaccination, though? Leave that to the dogs…
A newly developed vaccine could save both prairie dogs and Black-footed ferrets from the plague. But how can we mass administer the vaccine to both populations?
Traditional methods of locating ferrets involved technicians using spotlights at night to see the eyeshine of the nocturnal predators, but this involves some luck and proved not reliable. However, the excellent olfactory ability of dogs proves useful once again to solve another conservation dilemma. Conservation canines are now being used to sniff out ferrets while they sleep in their underground burrows. Vaccine-laden treats can then be left at the burrow’s entrance to ensure the ferret will have easy access once awake and leaving to hunt for the night.
Scent-detection dogs can locate ferret and prairie dog burrows with more accuracy and less cost than human technicians.
This non-invasive method of locating ferrets also greatly assists population monitoring as recovery continues. Prairie dog burrows can also be sought out to help in vaccinating them as well. If the conservation canine is protected by anti-flea medication, this way of searching is not only highly effective but costs about half as much as spotlighting and is safe for all species involved. The burrow locating assistance of dogs has become an important technique in both prairie dog and Black-footed ferret conservation.
With the help of conservation canines, Black-footed ferrets are being vaccinated and making a slow recovery from near extinction.
So as our household dogs emotionally help us through our current Covid-19 pandemic, keep in mind that conservation canines are also working to help the most endangered mammal overcome their pandemic plague. Dogs may just be the key to the third resurrection of the Black-footed ferret species and their continued survival.~Jeremy
Biologist & Captive Wildlife Consultant
Wolf Education and Research Center