Plague threatens prairie dogs, endangered ferrets in South Dakota
On the grasslands of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, wildlife officials are trying to do all they can to save one of the country's largest colonies of endangered black-footed ferrets.
The deadly disease sylvatic plague was discovered in May in a huge prairie dog town in the Conata Basin. The black-tailed prairie dog is the main prey of ferrets, and the disease quickly killed up to a third of the area's 290 ferrets along with prairie dogs.
The disease stopped spreading with the arrival of summer's hot, dry weather, but it poses a serious threat to efforts to establish stable populations of one of the nation's rarest mammals, said Scott Larson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Pierre.
The plague, which is carried by fleas, is the biggest danger to ferrets' survival in the Conata Basin and other sites that still have ferrets, said Larson, who is coordinating ferret conservation efforts among five federal agencies.
"It has the capacity to take out more ferret habitat than anything we've run up against, and do it in such a short order," Larson said. "For ferrets, it's the most challenging issue we face."
The ferrets were once pronounced extinct, but after a finding of a colony in 1981 and a captive breeding program, their numbers have increased. Plague has now affected most of the ferret colonies, but conservation officers are spraying white insecticide dust into prairie dog burrows to kill fleas and help save both the dogs and ferrets from the disease.
Ferrets have also been vaccinated.
Things are still touch and go, and conservation officers are learning all the time, but they are hoping this is enough to stop the spread of the plague and save the endangered animals.