Protecting prairie dogs | TSLN.com

Protecting prairie dogs

Maria Tussing
Assistant Editor

With 129,000 acres of deeded and leased ground to his name, Lenox Baker figures he can spare a few for prairie dogs, and, he hopes, black footed ferrets.

Baker bought the historic Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetsee, Wyoming, in 1999 and has made both the ecology and the economics priorities.

When Baker bought the ranch, it was partly from a conservation standpoint. He put conservation easements, held by the Nature Conservancy, on over half of the ranch. "That helped me afford it. I wanted to keep it as one ranch. A lot of these big ranches were being broken up into ranchettes. This is a beautiful valley, with the Greybull River, and I didn't want to see it developed."

Baker, a retired heart surgeon from Virginia, runs 1,320 mother cows with the help of some capable ranch managers and hired hands. "I've learned a lot," he says.

“If we promote them in areas where we can promote them, and control them in areas where they need to be controlled, we can strike a balance there. Zack Walker, nongame supervisor for Wyoming Game and Fish

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In addition to more than doubling the herd size in the last few years, since the last drought, Baker has been working with Wyoming Fish and Game on a vaccine for prairie dogs.

That sounds counter-intuitive to many ranchers—usually the goal is to control them, not encourage the populations. However, the vaccine has its place, says Zack Walker, the nongame supervisor for Wyoming Game and Fish.

The prairie dog vaccine study is in its third year on the Pitchfork. The vaccine was developed for use in animals by Tonie Rocke, a research epizootiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.

"I hope, should this work and we get adequate prairie dog numbers over a wide enough area, they're going to release black-footed ferrets back out here," Baker said. The black-footed ferrets were thought to have been extinct, but a population was found on the Pitchfork in the early 1980s, when the neighbor's dog brought one to the house. The ferrets in captivity and the ones that have been reintroduced came from the population on the Pitchfork.

Approximately 500 black-footed ferrets live in the wild now, but ferret recovery efforts are hampered in part by plague outbreaks. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is teaming up with 24 other states, federal agencies, tribes and non-governmental organizations to test the vaccine. Testing has been going at 29 sites in seven states over the past few years, according to a press release from WGFD.

The vaccine project is funded by a federal multi-state wildlife grant, and administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Walker said. "No Wyoming tax dollars are being used. We've basically been given money to run it for them in Wyoming."

The goal of the vaccine is to protect prairie dogs against the sylvatic plague.

Sylvatic plague is caused by the same flea-borne bacteria that causes bubonic plague, which is commonly thought to be the root of the "Black Death" that killed millions in Europe in the 14th century.

The bacteria was brought to the U.S. in the late 19th century and spread through rodents from the West Coast. According to the USGS, prairie dog colonies generally have an average of 90 percent mortality when struck by sylvatic plague, since they have no natural immunity to it. Walker said the catalyst for a plague outbreak isn't clear, but it generally coincides with increased population densities in prairie dog towns.

Right now, when a prairie dog town is infected with plague, it kills out most of the town, leaving the hardiest prairie dogs. If the vaccine is successful, in the absence of the plague, Walker speculates, the prairie dogs will disperse when their populations get too dense. At that point, he said, they will implement control measures to keep the prairie dogs from areas where they are not welcome.

With the endangered black-footed ferret depending on prairie dogs to survive, and some species of prairie dogs being considered for "threatened" or "endangered" status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the prairie dog vaccine may give managers another tool to stabilize prairie dog populations.

The vaccine is delivered orally, in baits that are peanut butter-flavored. It appears the prairie dogs are partial to peanut butter, since the baits disappear in a matter of a day or two. Researchers then collect blood samples to see if there is an increased immune response. The results are inconclusive so far, Walker said.

The vaccine was originally developed for people, but has been adapted for animals.

Walker says the vaccine may have further implications for outbreaks of plague in places where there is a great deal of human-rodent interaction.

The vaccine could also help keep some species from an endangered species listing.

Wyoming and several other states are in the midst of a wide-spread project to map populations of white-tailed prairie dogs. The white-tailed prairie dog was denied for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, but conservation groups are challenging the ruling, so the states have to address those issues.

"We're hoping we can show that they're abundant enough we don't have to deal with the federal rules," Walker said. If the vaccine is effective, it could help protect some colonies from sylvatic plague, keeping their numbers from plummeting and warranting an endangered species listing."

Walker said Wyoming's share of the mapping project will cost $184,000, which comes from state wildlife grants from the federal government, and Wyoming's general fund. "We aren't using your hunting dollars, but we might use a little of your tax dollars," he said.

Meanwhile, the state of Wyoming is also working on getting a 10j rule incorporated into the black-footed ferret management plan. The rule would be through the USFWS and would change the designation of the ferrets from "endangered" to "proposed for listing." Walker says, "That means that if you're doing an otherwise legal activity and you accidentally kill a ferret, you will not be held liable. If you're driving down the road or baling hay or moving pipe, it's completely covered."

He said this is a necessary step for getting landowners to buy in to the ferret reintroduction project. "If the 10j gets covered and we'd have this protection for the landowner, we'd start seeing who is willing to have ferrets on their property."

The one population of ferrets in Wyoming, in the Shirley Basin, is in a 10j-designated area, so the surrounding landowners are exempt from liability. The statewide designation would cover all landowners and the public.

"That's one reason we haven't released any black-footed ferrets in a while, is because we have been concerned about the landowner issue. We've suspended a lot of our work with the ferrets until we can get extra reassurances," Walker said.

"The biggest concern is ferrets require prairie dogs and a lot of ranchers are concerned about trying to build up prairie dog numbers in specific spots," Walker said. "If we get the 10J, we want to make sure we get a lot of community and private land buy-in. We don't just want to do this near somebody's place and have a problem. When we talk to folks about that they become a little less concerned because we're not trying to build up prairie dogs everywhere. There's a lot of skepticism on the ranchers' side that we're going to tell them one thing and do another. I can understand where they're coming from."

Walker said the agency's commitment to managing prairie dogs hasn't changed in areas where they need to be controlled.

"If we promote them in areas where we can promote them, and control them in areas where they need to be controlled, we can strike a balance there. It's not going to be one way or another, it has to be a blend of both, especially if you want to protect the ferret."

If the state gets to the point of reintroducing black-footed ferrets on private land, it will be by invitation only. They will work only with willing landowners, and no one will be compelled to host the black-footed ferrets. If the ferrets make their way to an area where they are not welcome, Walker said, they will be either left alone or trapped and removed, but the landowner can continue to manage prairie dogs in whatever legal manner he chooses.

While some landowners, like Baker, are willing to work on stabilizing the prairie dog populations and enhance habitat for black-footed ferrets, others are still concerned about the resource damage and rapid population growth an unchecked prairie dog colony can accomplish.

Walker says their goal is not to save all the prairie dogs. "If this does work out and it is effective, it was never our intent to put this all over the state, just in targeted areas. Just because we have this tool doesn't mean we have to use it everywhere."