How Feeding Prairie Dogs Peanut Butter Could Help Save Ferrets from the Plague

The recovery of black-footed ferrets is threatened by plague

Black footed ferret hunting
A young black-footed ferret learns to hunt prairie dogs at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered mammals in North America — a status that is far better than most suspected in the 1970s. At that time, scientists figured that this attractively-masked member of the weasel family, which once lived all across the Great Plains, was extinct. But in 1981, a dog brought back a dead ferret to Lucille Hogg’s back porch in Meeteetse, Wyoming. Since then, conservationists have fought hard to bring back the ferret. 

The latest weapon in their arsenal is peanut butter. Or rather, plague-vaccine-bearing peanut butter eaten by prairie dogs, reports Ruffin Prevost for Yellowstone Gate

Zoos and preserves have been breeding black-footed ferrets and releasing new animals into the wild, but the newly-placed animals face danger in the form of plague caused by Yersinia pestis. Plague threatens the already precarious populations of black-footed ferrets because it can wiping out whole prairie dog towns, ferrets’ main form of prey. It can also kill them outright, after ferrets eat diseased prairie dogs or get bit by fleas carrying the bacteria.

“Right now, we have two tools in our toolbox to combat sylvatic plague,” says Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research, a non-profit that works to help black-footed ferrets, in an article from The Nature Conservancy. “We dust prairie dog burrows with an insecticide to kill the fleas, and we give black-footed ferrets a shot to vaccinate them. Both are effective, but we have to do it every year, and it’s costly.”

Prevost and other reporters recently visited the Pitchfork Ranch in Wyoming, where scientists are using peanut butter baits to dose the local prairie dog population with oral plague vaccines. By protecting the prairie dogs, a major carrier of the bacterium, they can protect the ferrets. Toni Rocke, of the University of Wisconsin and the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, is one of the researchers working on the vaccine. The Pitchfork is one of 29 field sites around the country where they work.

“We have to make all the baits by hand, and I usually have one person making the vaccine and one person making the baits,” Rocke told Yellowstone Gate. Prevost writes:

She tested a range of flavors, but peanut butter proved to be the prairie dogs’ favorite. Rocke has now enlisted volunteers to help make the dice-sized bait cubes that are scattered across prairie dog habitat.

Another phase of trials will be needed to figure out how to best distribute the bait, which must be manufactured by automation on a much larger scale if it is to be effective beyond the 40-acre test sites where it is used now.

For more on why keeping prairie dogs relatively plague-free is good for the whole ecosystem, not black-footed ferrets alone, as well as the regulatory hurdles facing wildlife biologists working on this issue, read the rest of Prevost’s story

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