Plague Decimates Prairie Dogs

An outbreak of bubonic plague is turning prairie dog towns into ghost towns on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

“Right now, it’s a serious wildlife health issue and it’s something the public should be aware of,” said John Grentsen, a wildlife biologist for the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Since the presence of the bacteria that causes the plague was confirmed on the reservation and in southern Phillips County last fall, about 3,600 acres of healthy prairie dog towns have died off, and more are being decimated each month.

Weeks ago, a 500-acre prairie dog town on the reservation was alive with thousands of barking, scurrying rodents. Now, there is hardly any sound or movement.

Environmental officials suspect the area is on the verge of a plague epidemic similar to the one that annihilated prairie dogs on nearly 21,000 acres in Phillips County in the mid-1990s.

The die-off is hurting endangered black-footed ferrets and rare mountain plovers. The ferrets, which are being reintroduced in Montana, feed on prairie dogs and live in their burrows. The plovers prefer to nest in the sparse vegetation provided by prairie dog towns.

People Advised to Stay Away

Bubonic plague is transmitted by fleas. The bacteria — Yersinia pestis — thrives in prairie dog fleas. Once infected, prairie dogs contract a form of plague and die within days, usually deep within their burrows.

Other animals known to carry the disease are deer mice, rats, badgers, coyotes, bobcats and antelope.

Health officials say plague outbreaks among prairie dogs in northcentral Montana is nothing new, but people are advised to keep themselves and their pets flea-free and away from plagued areas.

So far, the prairie dog towns infected in and near Phillips County are in very remote areas, miles from the nearest cities or tourist attractions.

Montana has had two human plague cases in the past decade, said Todd Damrow, state epidemiologist. One man died from the plague after getting the disease while skinning an infected bobcat; another man became ill, but later recovered, after field dressing an infected antelope.

Modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but treatment must begin promptly. Symptoms include swollen and tender lymph glands accompanied by fever, chills, headache and extreme exhaustion.

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