One of the country’s most endangered mammals stands to benefit from two proposed actions announced this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). The Service has conducted Environmental Assessments (EA) for these actions and is seeking public comment for both activities.

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

As part of its ongoing efforts to conserve the rare black-footed ferret, the Service is proposing to administer an oral sylvatic plague vaccine for the species’ primary prey: prairie dogs.  The vaccine would be applied at Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges in northeastern Montana.

Prairie dogs are susceptible to sylvatic plague, which can kill virtually all the prairie dogs on entire colonies of the ground-dwelling animals. Black-footed ferrets rely almost exclusively on prairie dogs as a source of food and shelter, so efforts to maintain and grow prairie dog colonies would benefit establishing and growing ferret populations.

For several years, the Service has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and National Wildlife Health Center to evaluate the effectiveness of these vaccinations. Results from that work indicate that the vaccine helps mitigate the effects of plague.  Now that the initial safety and research phases have proven successful, the Service is proposing to apply the vaccine at larger management scales.

The first EA available for public comment considers depositing single, vaccine-laden, peanut-butter flavored baits uniformly across prairie dog colonies on at Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges at a rate of 50 doses per acre.

The second EA evaluates the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to apply the vaccine on the same refuges and dosages.

The announcement opens a 30 day comment period for both EAs, which ends on May 13, 2016.