Prairie Dogs: Fighting the Sylvatic Plague

Prairie dogs (Cynomys leucurus) are a common sight throughout the West. You can find them in your yard or tearing up your field. They’re almost as common as squirrels or raccoons. However, in their natural habitat, their lives are much more difficult. From fending off predators to habitat loss and disease. This particular species of prairie dogs is the white-tailed prairie dog. Like other prairie dogs species, their range and populations have drastically reduced, due to massive eradication efforts that began in the early 1900s. Yet, they are a resilient species and continue to thrive even though they once faced burrow poisoning and complete eradication from States like Wyoming.

Now, they face another existential threat. That comes in the form of a bacterial disease known as the Sylvatic plague. This is the same bacterium that causes the Black plague. If this plague is found in any individual prairie dog it can easily be transmitted across an entire population, with deadly results. Thus, Wildlife Scientist and Technicians in various agencies from NPS, BLM, and USDA are surveying numerous Prairie dog populations and vaccinating them against the Sylvatic plague.

But before they can set out the vaccines they must first capture as many Prairie dogs in the determined study area and collect various data points about each individual prairie dog. Once they are captured they’re taken to the outdoor processing station to have their ears pierced with a numbered tag. The tag number is then marked on their heads. So, they can later be identified when they are recaptured in a month. After tagging their weight is taken and their sex is identified. Finally, blood is drawn to run various analyses and act as a control. They are then put back in their cage and soon dropped off at the burrow where they came from. This process is repeated on every individual prairie dog.

In a week from now, small gummy like vaccines will be left by their burrows. A month from then they will be recaptured and blood will be drawn again to see how many have taken the vaccine and given them a fighting chance against the Sylvatic plague.


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