Sylvatic Plague Detected in Badlands National Park

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Date: July 7, 2009
Contact: Judy Olson, (605) 433-5240

Although not unexpected, sylvatic plague was confirmed in a prairie dog colony in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area of Badlands National Park on July 1. Sylvatic plague, a flea-borne bacterial disease, was first identified in South Dakota in 2004 and documented just south of Badlands National Park in Conata Basin in 2008. This discovery is the first detection of the disease within Badlands National Park.

The response plan initiated last year will continue. Following last year’s detection in Conata Basin, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and individuals developed strategies to respond to the outbreak with 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 (prairie dogs).

The basis of the initial human safety response involved public education. While the disease is rarely transmitted to humans, the public was provided with several precautions to reduce the risk of human exposure to plague, including: Use of insect repellent with DEET when working or recreating in plague areas to reduce the possibility of flea bites, avoiding the handling of sick or dead animals, keeping pets from roaming the affected prairie dog colonies in order to avoid flea accumulation on pets, and if exposure is suspected, immediately see a physician and identify plague as a concern.

A multi-agency effort was initiated to protect one-third of the highest quality black-footed ferret habitat in an effort to protect two-thirds of the black-footed population in the Conata Basin/Badlands National Park ecosystem. This resulted in selecting 11,000 acres of prairie dog colonies that would be treated with insecticide to reduce the flea population (primary plague transmission agent). Black-footed ferrets were also trapped and given a plague vaccination to further protect them. Ferret population monitoring conducted in early fall 2008 revealed that approximately 85% of the ferret population was protected from the combination of insecticide treatment and vaccination.

Tularemia was also detected in a prairie dog colony in Badlands National Park in early July. Tularemia, also known as "rabbit fever", is a natural component of the ecosystem, and has been documented at Badlands National Park in the past. It is a tick-borne disease that is extremely rare in humans. Visitors are reminded to avoid handling sick or dead animals and to apply insect repellent to clothing and skin to prevent bites from mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks.

For further information, please contact Brian Kenner, Director of Resource Management at (605) 433-5260 or Greg Schroeder, Wildlife Biologist at (605) 433-5269.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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