Comment period extended to June 13 on proposal to vaccinate prairie dogs | TSLN.com

Comment period extended to June 13 on proposal to vaccinate prairie dogs

Ranchers have an extension lasting until June 13 to comment on two Environmental Assessments (EA), which propose the use of a vaccine against the sylvatic plague in order to protect prairie dogs and the endangered black-footed ferret. The vaccines would be dropped on land within the borders of the Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges located in northeastern Montana.

"We plan to contain the vaccine where the black-footed ferret was reintroduced in 1994; the entire project will be conducted on the refuge with the targeted area spanning about 1,200 acres," said Randy Matchett, Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge biologist. "The sylvatic plague is a non-native, invasive disease that was introduced into the U.S. in the early 1900s. It's spread by infected fleas and is lethal to both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. I've seen the plague wipe out a 1,300-acre prairie dog colony to just 20 acres in a matter of a three-week time period."

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, "All forms of plague in wild animals are generally referred to as sylvatic plague. Seventy-six species of mammals carry plague, but it is primarily a disease of wild rodents… In cases where people have contracted the disease, it is usually referred to as bubonic plague. When people contract the disease, it is usually from coming in contact with an infected rodent (such as a rat, a squirrel, or a prairie dog) or their fleas."

Previous efforts to eliminate the plague include administering insecticides to kill fleas in 34,000 prairie dog burrows located on the refuge in 2008. The proposed EA will take a different approach with an oral vaccine that will be strategically placed throughout the plotted area.

"We have been using the oral vaccine experimentally for the last three years," said Matchett. "Each dose is about the size of a sugar cube. We drop 50 oral vaccines/acre, so the application rate is to walk and drop a cube every 30 feet. We spread the vaccines out uniformly, so they are evenly dispersed. By doing this, we've documented that we can reach 70-90 percent of the prairie dog population. In the first safety trials we've done, the bait disappears after three days."

The cost of covering 1,200 acres and dropping the peanut butter-flavored vaccine on foot would be astounding, and the researchers are exploring the use of drones to cut down on labor, time and expense of administering the vaccines to the prairie dogs.

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"The vast majority of the comments we've received so far have been highly supportive of us giving the vaccine on national wildlife refgues," he said. "However, we fully realize that there are some places prairie dogs won't be tolerated. It can be difficult to find an area large enough to support prairie dog towns and offer enough support for a viable ferret habitat. We know the challenges ranchers face with prairie dogs, and we want to work to support efforts in places where they are wanted and do boundary control near places where they are not wanted. It boils down to land use priority decisions and locating places where the black-footed ferret will be able to thrive."

"The proposed area is a very small, focused spot within the refuge, which is miles and miles away from the nearest private land," said Matchett. "I would encourage ranchers to look through the EAs for more information on the vaccines."

The Montana Stockgrowers has looked at the EAs.

"We, as an organization, have had a lot of discussions over the years about prairie dogs and the recovery of the black footed ferret," said Jay Bodner, Montana Stockgrowers Association natural resource director. "This particular project will be conducted entirely on the wildlife refuges, so one of the issues we are looking at more closely is if this particular trial would eventually be done on other federal lands, more specifically BLM lands. If another federal agency would take on this protocol for the vaccine trial, the goal of those agencies would be to significantly increase the prairie dog populations, which would definitely impact cattle grazing. If that would be the case, we would want a balanced approach where the land is being used for multiple uses."

"I believe in balance; I'm a wildlife enthusiast," said rancher Shad Sullivan who runs a stocker operation near Ordwaay, Colo. "However, we've dealt with prairie dogs on our ranch my entire life, and although we've seen the plague decimate entire prairie dog populations very quickly, just as quickly it seems the prairie dog colonies rebuild. If the vaccine works the way it is proposed, we would see a massive growth in prairie dog colonies. It's definitely going to be tough on ranchers up there, in my opinion. I doubt there is much support from the ranching community for this — not only because of the burden prairie dogs place on ranch land, but also because of the financial aspect of administering the vaccine to these colonies."

Although Sullivan isn't near the wildlife refuge, he understands well the implications of having prairie dog towns in his pastures.

"We do manage our prairie dog population on our ranch, but of course, management is also contingent on how well the neighbors manage the colonies, as well," he said. "We have a lot of colonies here, and they hurt us the most during a drought. We've been in nine-year drought, and the areas where the prairie dog towns are located, the land is bare and blows in the wind. When the plague hits our prairie dogs, it allows the land some time to renew from the damage they cause."

While the drought decreased his available grass by one-third, he said he lost another third of the ground to prairie dog damage.

"Prairie dogs decrease my stocking rates for my yearling cattle," he said. "I think encouraging the population growth of prairie dogs is going to have negative effects on ranchers."

The Stockgrowers agree. Federal dollars could be used to improve federal land, rather than helping to maintain an animal that damages it.

"As an organization and as livestock producers, we aren't looking to eradicate every prairie dog town, but the plague certainly helps to manage populations. There is potential for the vaccine to be so effective that prairie dog populations would rebound on federal land so much that it could impact the adjacent private lands and that would be problematic for producers. If we could choose where federal resources would be spent, we would much prefer dollars be allocated to address the brucellosis issues in the bison and elk herds on federal land. This is a much greater animal health issue that I think our membership is concerned about.

"We would like to see more resources being used to improve range land, and sometimes that strategy conflicts with what the prairie dogs need," he added.

South Dakota State University conducted a study on the effects prairie dog towns have on mixed-grass prairie where cattle graze. According to the study results, "Prairie dogs are highly competitive with cattle, reducing the amount of forage available for livestock consumption throughout the growing season. Forage removed by prairie dogs on the on-town sites was nearly three times as great as forage removed by cattle on the on-town sites during the June sampling period."

What's more, the study concluded that, "Prairie dog town sites provided only half the forage to livestock as did similar sites without prairie dogs. Both a shift in composition toward less desirable plant species and a reduction in accessibility due to clipping likely contribute to reduced forage availability. Prairie dogs on cattle pastures should be treated in a similar fashion to other herbivores such as elk or insects that compete with cattle for forage. Without this adjustment, the risk of overgrazing the pasture, both on- and off-town, exists."

"I think the proposed EAs are trying to interfere with the natural order of things. It's hard not to be skeptical about any government interference; ranchers today are fighting so many environmental movements that really impact the way we can do business. I think they are speaking with a split-forked tongue; they want nature to thrive as intended, but then they are willing to do something unnatural like give vaccines orally to prairie dogs, which promotes their real agenda," said Sullivan.

"Obviously, prairie dogs can be pests, but they can also be valuable for other wildlife. There is a balance," said Pete Gober, National Black-Footed Ferret Recovery manager. "Prairie dogs add value to black-footed ferrets, and our recovery efforts aim to keep these animals on the landscape. The habitat that will be needed to support these efforts is one-tenth of one percent of the land already inhabited; this is a pretty modest goal and would recover the ferret and support other species that use these colonies."

Gober said to accomplish this goal will require a non-regulatory approach, support from landowners, and participation from agencies like NRCS and APHIS. In the past, NRCS has paid landowners to tolerate prairie dogs in Colorado, and APHIS has dusted colonies for fleas, as well as offered lethal control of prairie dogs where they are not wanted.

"Let's quit talking and start doing," he said. "Everybody has a role in this effort. Through our Safe Harbor Program, we want to support prairie dog populations where they are wanted and control them where they are not wanted. We developed this program in order to identify ranchers who might be willing to tolerate prairie dogs on their land. For ranchers to participate, we need to make sure the Endangered Species Act doesn't intimidate and regulations don't hurt the landowners. We need to ask what the rancher needs to participate in recovery efforts, and we need to understand how it could impact their bottom line to do so and be able to offset any forage impacts to help them tolerate prairie dogs on their ranches."

Gober admitted that the costs of these EAs might be substantial, but the vaccination could be significant in plague management and supporting the ferrets currently living on the wildlife refuges.

"We don't know what the longterm costs might be, but if we have proper plague management to maintain the 3,000 ferrets currently living in the wild, then I believe the population will grow by leaps and bounds," said Gober.