Ecology of Plague

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A ferret in a field of wildflowers
A black footed ferret in a field of flowers

Because sylvatic plague is a serious threat to prairie dog colonies and the endangered black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) that depend upon them, FORT scientists are investigating the dynamics of plague in the wild. This study is directed toward gaining further understanding of the ecology of plague during periods between epizootic outbreaks of the disease in prairie dogs Cynomys spp.). If enzootic plague is depressing populations of small mammals, an ambitious effort to remove plague could allow increased population densities to develop over a several-year period. Investigators are attempting to reduce the incidence of plague (or eliminate it) from test areas by reducing the population of fleas, which transmit the disease. The initial objectives of this study are to (1) assess efficacy, longevity, and cost of flea control using deltamethrin delivered as dust within burrows and (2) measure population responses of prairie dogs and associated mammals. Research, development, and field trials of vaccines against sylvatic plague in prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are also underway.

As a key part of this work, FORT hosted the Symposium on the Ecology of Plague and Its Effects on Wildlife in Fort Collins, Colo., November 4-6, 2008. This symposium was co-sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado State University, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. FORT’s mission in sponsoring this symposium was to increase the ability of scientists and resource managers to understand, evaluate, and mitigate wildlife risks associated with plague. A special issue of Vector Borne and Zoonotic Diseases was published in January 2010 highlighting key presentations and all abstracts from the symposium. The articles and abstracts represent the work of 133 participants from 8 countries and span the range from maintenance dynamics of plague in natural foci; influence of environmental factors and landscape ecology; role of rodents and vector species in transmission; genetics and evolution; management, control, and surveillance; risk factors for humans from plague in wildlife; impacts of plague on wildlife populations; and consequences for conservation of imperiled species.