Prairie dogs in the wild are less likely to succumb to plague after they ingest peanut-butter-flavored bait that contains a vaccine against the disease, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study published yesterday in the journal EcoHealth.

Prairie dog burrow
Prairie dogs
Image/Singer Ron, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In an effort to increase populations of endangered black-footed ferrets and conserve the prairie dogs they rely on for survival, it is essential for land managers to control outbreaks of the bacterial disease also known as sylvatic plague. The plague affects numerous wild animal species, and domestic animals and humans are susceptible as well.

The vaccine, developed specifically for prairie dogs by scientists at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the University of Wisconsin – Madison, elicits a protective immune response that can help them fight off infection upon later exposure to the disease.

“Plague is devastating to prairie dogs, a keystone species of grassland ecosystems,” said Tonie Rocke, a USGS scientist and the project lead. “Our goal in developing an oral plague vaccine is to provide another tool for land managers to reduce the effects of plague outbreaks on prairie dog colonies. This reduction could have positive impacts on conservation of the threatened Utah prairie dog and survival of the endangered black-footed ferret, a prairie dog-dependent species.”

Once thought to be extinct, the black-footed ferret is now one of the most endangered mammals in North America, and plague is a major impediment to its recovery. Both ferrets and prairie dogs are highly susceptible to the disease. The current method for controlling plague consists of dusting prairie dog colonies with insecticide to kill fleas that transmit the pathogen. Although dusting has been effective in controlling the spread of plague, it is labor-intensive, and some flea species may develop resistance to the pesticide.

Read more at USGS