Office of External Affairs
Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mountain-Prairie Region
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

May 27, 2008

Contacts: Pete Gober 605-224-8693 x 224
               Scott Larson 605-224-8693 x 232


Actions Underway in Response to the Plague Outbreak in Conata Basin, South Dakota 


On May 15, sylvatic plague was confirmed in prairie dog colonies in the Conata Basin Area.  Interested agencies, nongovernmental agencies and individuals are developing strategies to respond to the outbreak. 


Response to the outbreak involves two considerations:  First and foremost is protection of human health and safety.  Second is protecting the endangered black-footed ferret, their habitat, and their prey base, i.e., prairie dogs.


Mapping last week indicates that possibly 4,000 acres of prairie dogs have been affected to date.  Some of the affected areas included colonies occupied by black-footed ferrets.  One of the strategies involves using insecticides to reduce flea populations in prairie dog colonies that have high value to black-footed ferrets but have not yet experienced plague die offs.  Agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and possibly others anticipate beginning insecticide applications beginning the week of May 27.  Conservation organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, Prairie Wildlife Research, and Defenders of Wildlife have offered financial assistance to purchase supplies or expertise in locating ferrets and administering vaccines.  Preventative control of fleas along Highway 44 will be attempted to reduce danger to humans.


Other strategies still being investigated, involve use of insecticides in portions of the plague impacted area and vaccination of black-footed ferrets in certain areas.  An insecticide application in the impacted area would be intended to reduce flea numbers that could otherwise attach to animals and be moved to other areas.  A flea reduction effort should lower chances of fleas getting on pets or people.  Vaccines may be used in an attempt to protect ferrets in certain areas where ferrets can be readily located. 


The South Dakota Department of Health noted that since plague was first identified in South Dakota in 2004 in wildlife, there have not been any cases confirmed in humans.  However, Lon Kightlinger with the Department encouraged continued precautions when working in the area and avoidance of handling sick or dead animals. While this is a good rule to follow in general, it is particularly applicable in the area experiencing prairie dog die offs.   Additionally, pets should not be allowed to roam in the affected prairie dog colonies in order to avoid flea accumulation on pets.


Plague may enter a person through a break in the skin by direct contact with tissue or body fluids of a plague-infected animal.  Plague can also be transmitted by inhaling infected droplets expelled by coughing by a person or animal, especially domestic cats, with pneumonic plague. 


More information can be obtained by contacting the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Vector Borne Infectious Diseases website, or by contacting one of the agencies named in this release.


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