Recent concerns over die-offs of black tailed prairie dog colonies on the Oglala National Grassland (ONG), located northwest of Crawford, Nebraska led land managers to test for Yersinia pestis the bacteria that cause sylvatic plague.  Fleas were collected by the University of South Dakota in October and November of 2014 from various prairie dog colonies on the ONG and the test results came back positive.
Image/Singer Ron, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Image/Singer Ron, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The plague has been spreading throughout the region since its first detection in South Dakota back in 2004.  It has been confirmed on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (Wall, SD) and the Fort Pierre National Grassland (Fort Pierre, SD) both of which are districts of the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands.  The plague has also been confirmed in Badlands National Park (Wall, SD) and the Lower Brule Indian Reservation (Lower Brule, SD).

So what is sylvatic plague?  Sylvatic plague is an infectious bacterial disease that affects primarily rodents and prairie dogs and is spread by infected fleas that feed upon these animals or to humans who come into contact with the infected fleas.   According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) plague usually occurs during the warmer seasons but can be acquired anytime during the year.  The warmer and shorter winters may contribute to its spread, as it prevents nature’s ability to decrease flea populations through freezing temperatures.
The Yersinia pestis bacterium has been known to cause bubonic and pneumonic plague in humans. Though rare in the United States, with less than 10 to 20 infections each year, the disease is treatable with antibiotics when caught early.  Typical symptoms of plague resemble the flu with sudden onset of fever and chills, headache, muscle ache, nausea and vomiting, swollen lymph nodes and a generally “feeling sick.”  It is imperative to seek medical attention early and inform the physician if you have been in a known plague area or had potential exposure to infected animals within the previous two to six days.
Prevention is the best remedy for avoiding the plague and can be done easily with these three general safety measures.  First, avoid any contact with wild rodents, such as prairie dogs, as they may have infected fleas.  Second, do not handle dead rodents and never feed wildlife.  Third, keep pets away from prairie dog colonies, dead rodents, and be sure to use flea collars on your outdoor pets.  This will prevent your pet from bringing the infected fleas to you.