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Badlands National Park Battles The Plague

Badlands National Park

Both black footed ferrets and prairie dogs live in Badlands National Park in and around the Conata Basin.

But prairie dogs are carriers of the sylvatic plague. It’s similar to the disease that devastated Europe’s population during the Middle Ages.

For years, park officials have struggled with the effects of the plague on the endangered black footed ferret population.

Officials say ferret numbers are now increasing but that there’s still a long way to go in the fight against the disease.  

A Black Footed Ferret chatters as its released into the Conata Basin of the Badlands National Park. The effort to save this endangered species hit a road block eight years ago when sylvatic plague cut into this fragile population of Badlands ferrets. National Park Biologist Eddie Childers says the losses were devastating.

“Oh it took out so many, I think we had 350 black footed ferrets originally in the Conata Basin Badlands area and we went down to a low of 42,” says Childers.

He says officials think a park coyote was the first carrier of the plague back in 2007.

“That was kind of like the epicenter, when plague broke out in that same general area and it just leaped and bounded across the Conata Basin all the way up into the Badlands Wilderness area and it was just like a wildfire, a mosaic kind of a thing, the way the disease spread,” says Childers.

But Childers says it could’ve been much worse. He says insecticides, edible pellets that immunize prairie dogs and live trapping vaccines are helping to rebuild this population.  

Childers says just last month ferret numbers on park lands were around 70. He says the actual ferret size could be as high as 100 in surrounding areas.

But finding ways to stop the spread of the plague is just one part to a larger picture. Childers says gaining funds to conduct new research and experiments is a challenge.

“If the oral vaccine is better than the dusting, if a combined dusting/oral vaccine works, we’re going to actually get some scientific numbers, some valid data out of this, to determine what’s happening, what’s the best treatment," says Childers. "Money is so limited, how we can best use our resources to save the most endangered land mammal in North America, the black footed ferret."

Childers adds that other research projects can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Childers says upcoming experiments will try to find the best vaccine methods to use on the affected animals. He says research focus will eventually shift to studying the prominence of the disease.

But he is hopeful the efforts taking place now will help protect the black footed ferret population for many years to come.