How wildlife officials hope to stop the plague and save Colorado's wildlife

It may sound like a grand and epic struggle - fighting plague in Colorado's wildlife to save Colorado's wildlife. But for members of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, it's a calculated and research-led fight against a known disease.

KUSA - It may sound like a grand and epic struggle - fighting plague in Colorado's wildlife to save Colorado's wildlife. But for members of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, it's a calculated and research-led fight against a known disease.

New research just released by CPW implies treating prairie dog colonies - the principal spreaders of plague - with flea-killing dust or an oral vaccine can prevent their complete "collapse" when they come face to face with plague.

The study took three full years and took place in Larimer County. Researchers found pretty blatantly the difference between colonies treated with the oral vaccine or dust. Those treated survived, those not treated died.

CPW has been dusting burrows since 2010 to protect prairie dogs from plague in the Gunnison Basin. But the oral vaccine is new and delivered by peanut-flavored food pellets tossed onto prairie dog colonies. 

VERIFY | Prairie dogs, the plague and you.

Some good tips for keeping plague away from you and your loved ones:

       -Use insect repellent when you hike
       -Treat your outdoor pets with flea medicine
       -Wear long pants and tuck your pant legs into your socks
       -If you are around prairie dogs, stay away from their colonies
       -Watch your pets to make sure they don't come in contact with a dead or sick animal

Back in 2010, prairie dogs narrowly avoided being placed on the threatened species list, but the local population is still delicate. Armed with this new research collected in conjunction with the National Wildlife Health Center, wildlife officials hope to keep the prairie dogs and imperiled black-footed ferret colonies safe around the state.

Did you know?

Plague comes from non-native bacteria brought in by - yup - fleas. The first cases of plague were documented back in the '40s. Since then, the disease has been devastating to the state's wildlife. Even worse, it's burrowed its way into the state and probably won't leave anytime soon.

Why do we care about the prairie dog?

Not particularly cute or interesting, these burrow-dwellers are extremely important to the state's ecosystems.

"[Plague] outbreaks periodically kill vast swaths of prairie dog colonies that support a myriad of other wildlife species such as burrowing owls, badgers, insects and plant species," writes Lauren Truitt of CPW in a news release.

If you're interested in prairie dog conservation and activism, check out the Prairie Protection Colorado Facebook page

What's next?

CPW needs to find out how best to distribute these plague-deterrents AND figure out which deterrents work best in different places.

It's important to stop the spread of plague for more than just the prairie dog's sake! Two people died from plague in 2015. Just a few days ago, a Weld County cat caught plague (but is expected to recover).

RELATED | A house cat in rural Weld County tested positive for plague.

If you want to read the full 12-page research paper (because you're just THAT into research), check it out at this link

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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