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USDA Wildlife Specialists Dust Prairie Dog Burrows to Combat Plagueorida

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Lyndsay Cole  (970) 494-7410
Workabeba (Abby) Yigzaw  (301) 734-7255

USDA Wildlife Specialists Dust Prairie Dog Burrows to Combat Plague

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2011--Wildlife specialists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) dusted portions of a 40,000 acre ranch in Texas during the last week of April to combat a suspected plague outbreak in prairie dog colonies.  They spread insecticide in burrows to kill fleas that transmit the deadly plague to prairie dogs.

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The work in the Texas South Plains took place in cooperation with the Texas Parks and Wildlife and the landowner.  Wildlife specialists on all-terrain vehicles treated 50-acre plots on the ranch, where hundreds of prairie dogs are dying.  While plague has not been confirmed in this population, the die-off of prairie dogs is consistent with the recurring outbreaks of plague found in West Texas.  The team was scheduled to work for two days to dust individual burrows with deltamethrin (DeltaDust).  Deltamethrin is a widely used insecticide in residential and other sites to eliminate and prevent such pests as fleas, bedbugs, ticks and other insect pests.  Exposure to mammals is classified as safe.

Although many consider them pests, prairie dogs are important in the diet of the black-footed ferret, as well as some raptors and the swift fox.  USDA’s wildlife services (WS) program conducted the work in Texas to protect human health and to maintain potential habitat for the endangered black-footed ferret.  Establishing a population of the highly endangered ferret in the Texas Panhandle is possible if habitat can be maintained.

The black-footed ferret once ranged between the Canadian and Mexican borders in the grasslands of 12 states.  It has been classified as an endangered species since 1967 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  In the mid-1980s, a population of 18 black-footed ferrets was taken into a captive breeding program that has seen 6,500 ferret kits born and 2,300 released in reintroduction sites.  Due to their specialized diet of prairie dogs, maintaining suitable prairie ecosystems and prairie dog habitat is considered essential to the ferrets, which are the only native North American ferret.

Plague is a bacterial disease passed by fleas.  Fleas in prairie dog colonies can infect those rodents and the ferrets that feed on the prairie dogs.  With modern medical care and living conditions, plague does not need to be fatal in humans, although prompt diagnosis and treatment is critical.  Human plague in the United States occurs as mostly scattered cases in rural western areas, affecting an average of 10 to 15 people each year.

In 2005, WS conducted a similar project to combat a plague outbreak in South Dakota.    The area on the Pine Ridge Reservation northern border was located near a promising black-footed ferret colony reintroduction.  WS had collected burrow swabs and carcasses and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed the presence of sylvatic plague in prairie dog colonies.  The WS national wildlife disease program activated its surveillance and emergency response system in cooperation with the FWS and tribal representatives.  WS disease biologists treated burrows in nine prairie dog colonies covering 5,000 acres to reduce flea infestations.  Additional treatments took place in 2008 and currently prairie dog and black-footed ferret colonies in the treated areas remain healthy.


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