Three prairie dogs. Credit: National Park Service

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, South Dakota – A prairie dog die off in Badlands National Park is confirmed to be a result of a plague outbreak by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. According to a press release from the park, test results received on May 31 showed presence of the disease in the park, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and the greater Conata-Badlands ecosystem.

The risk to humans is low, but the presence of the plague presents concerns for the area’s  black-footed ferret population. The disease was last detected in the Conata Basin in 2009, when it wiped out more than 80% of the black-footed ferret population. According to Defenders of Wildlife, there are only 350 of the animals left in the world.

We are concerned about the impacts to the black-footed ferret population and are taking necessary action to protect this important keystone species. Extensive conservation efforts in 2009 to manage the spread of plague were able to preserve a black-footed ferret population in the Conata-Badlands ecosystem, where the largest free-ranging black-footed ferret population in the world now resides.”  – Eric Veach, Superintendent of Badlands National Park.

Around seven plague cases occur in humans in the United States per year, and it can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms typically begin around 2-6 days after exposure, and can include  fever, chills, muscle aches, and painful swelling at the site of a flea bite and the nearest lymph node. If not properly treated, symptoms can progress to blood infection, severe respiratory illness, and death.

The National Park Service recommends following these practices to prevent plague:

  • Avoid contact with rodents and their fleas and burrows.
  • Wear insect repellent when working or recreating outdoors. Wear long pants tucked into socks and closed-toe shoes.
  • Never touch or approach a sick or dead animal, and never feed wildlife.-Do not pitch tents near rodent burrows.
  • Keep pets leashed and current on a flea and tick preventative.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of plague. If you develop fever, chills, swelling at the site of an insect bite or nearby lymph node, seek medical care immediately and inform your doctor you may have been exposed to plague.

The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and conservation partners are applying  emergency flea control agents in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague through the Conata-Badlands ecosystem. The black-footed ferrets will also be captured and vaccinated against the disease.


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