Disappearing Prairie Dogs (part 1 of a 2-part blog)

December 19, 2010
5:48 p.m., Sunday
I’m driving east on Highway 18, and I’ve just crossed into South Dakota from Wyoming on my way up to Conata Basin. During the next four nights, I will work with my partners in the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to spotlight black-footed ferrets on the frozen prairie. We have a few more areas to survey for this year and really want to capture and vaccinate more ferrets before the holiday season. As I drive this dark and lonely road my mind plays through, like a movie, the upcoming nights.

I’m snapped back to reality when my cell phone rings. It is my friend Larry H. in Kansas, private landowner, cattle rancher and conservationist. Larry, The Nature Conservancy, and a few other landowners have prairie dogs on their property, and nearly three years ago black-footed ferrets were released there. These are the only ferret populations in Kansas, and they have done well. I was spotlighting there only a month ago. We found quite a few ferrets, with our cumulative population count topping 60 individuals. I could hear the distress in Larry’s voice as he said “Travis, I’m not seeing any more prairie dogs.”

The blood drained from my face and my heart sank in my chest. Neither Larry nor I had to speak it, but we both suspected the cause … plague. One of the primary reasons this black-footed ferret reintroduction site is so important is the absence of plague, a disease that is deadly for ferrets and their only prey, prairie dogs. I know all too well the devastating effects of plague, as it destroyed half the habitat in Conata Basin from 2008 to 2010.

It took me a moment to gather myself, and I told Larry that if plague was in his front yard then the rest of the prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are likely gone. I know what it takes to mount an effort to combat plague, and we simply don’t have the time and resources for an immediate response. I suggested we keep in touch and after the holidays a small team of us would travel to Kansas to see what could be salvaged.

January 11, 2011
7:38 p.m., Tuesday
Tomorrow I’m headed to Logan County, Kansas, to meet up with my colleagues Dan M. of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Jack C. of Kansas State University. We’re planning on some daytime reconnaissance to determine if any prairie dogs are still alive and then some nighttime spotlighting to hopefully detect any lucky black-footed ferrets. For the most part, though, we expect to confirm our worst fear; plague. If plague has blazed a course through thousands of acres of prairie dog colonies in western Kansas, then we can expect to see very few prairie dogs and even fewer ferrets.

January 12, 2011
2:11 p.m., Wednesday
I arrive at Larry’s ranch where Dan and Jack are waiting for me. The weather is sunny and mild, about 40 degrees Fahrenheit with no wind. There are a few inches of snow on the ground from a storm that passed through a few days ago. It is an absolutely perfect day for prairie dogs to be active and above ground, eating some snow, foraging for roots, and engaging in minor construction on their burrows. Typically when I enter a prairie dog colony in daylight hours, I am greeted with alarm calls from prairie dogs in every direction. A person really cannot enter a colony without some prairie dogs ‘barking.’ As I stand on the tailgate of my pickup truck in the middle of a prairie dog colony, scanning with binoculars, I hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.

2:35 p.m.
The little bit of snow on the ground provides me with an opportunity to see which animals, if any, have been active recently. The snow conditions are not the best to look for and identify tracks but at this point I’m desperate to find any sign of prairie dogs, whether it be tracks, diggings, hearing a ‘bark’ or seeing a plump ball of fur perched on a mound. I drive through the colony with my eyes intensely searching the ground for any tracks. Pretty quickly I find a set of coyote tracks and a set of mouse tracks, but no sign of prairie dogs. In fact, all the prairie dog burrow mounds have snow in them and look like the occupants simply vanished. Plague can do that.

2:38 p.m.
I slam on the brakes and hurriedly put the truck into park. Scrambling out the door I scurry a few yards behind the truck to a small set of tracks between two prairie dog burrows. They are black-footed ferret tracks. Now this is where things get pretty interesting.

Black-footed ferrets die of plague, sometimes within hours or days of encountering the disease. One of the primary ways a ferret could encounter plague is by finding a prairie dog that died of it. Not one to overlook a free meal, the ferret would likely eat the dead prairie dog and ingest a massive dose of plague. If all the prairie dogs on Larry’s ranch died of plague then why would I be finding signs of black-footed ferrets? They should have been long gone before the last prairie dog. A small number of ferrets were vaccinated against plague and maybe, just maybe, these were the snow tracks of a vaccinated ferret. But even if a few vaccinated ferrets survived, their prey base is gone and the ferrets would surely starve within a few months.

5:02 p.m.
Confused and bewildered, I meet up with Dan and Jack. They haven’t seen a single prairie dog on Larry’s ranch either. When I inform my colleagues that I found not just one but six sets of black-footed ferret snow tracks in the past few hours, I see Jack’s eyes light up. He is thinking the same thing as I; there is a possibility that plague is not here. We head back to town to grab some food and a quick nap because, even though we have been awake since 5:30 a.m., our day has just begun.

10:32 p.m.
A little bit of the moon sits above the western part of the sky as I pull up to Larry’s house. He volunteers to ride along with me and spotlight for black-footed ferrets in the area that I found six snow tracks earlier. Dan and Jack team up to cover a couple of other pastures. Our goal for tonight is to find black-footed ferrets and identify them through a previously implanted microchip so we can determine if the remaining ferrets are vaccinated or not.

11:45 p.m.
It doesn’t take long before Larry and I spot our first black-footed ferret of the night, not far away from a faint set of snow tracks found earlier. We set a reader over the mouth of the burrow, mark the location on a GPS and leave a reflector post before we drive away. We will continue to spotlight and come back in an hour or so to check the reader.

January 13, 2011
2:15 a.m., Thursday
By now Larry and I have located three black-footed ferrets but have yet to get a microchip reading on any of them. We are working our way over to the second ferret sighting and reader set. With anticipation I hop out of the truck into the frigid night and open the container that holds the microchip reader.

“We’ve got one!” I call out to Larry. I record the microchip number, 022*547*947, and immediately relay this information to Dan on the two-way radio. The radio crackles back in few minutes as Dan says “Female kit, born in 2010, never vaccinated against plague.” Wide-eyed, Larry and I both look at each other. “Now we’ve got something!”

4:00 a.m.
Larry and I finally identified all three of the black-footed ferrets we located, and all were not vaccinated against plague. We meet up with Dan and Jack and agree to call it a night so we can ponder what we’ve observed thus far.

11:00 p.m.
We are back at it, spotlighting for a second night. Larry once again is my co-pilot, and I’m amazed at the energy he has at 74 years old. Tonight we venture into a different area than last night. I really want to find and identify black-footed ferrets in a new area. Larry tells me that a local reporter called today asking about plague. He gets the sense the newspaper may run a front-page story about plague unless there is evidence to the contrary.

January 14, 2011
4:03 a.m., Friday
Between the two spotlighting teams, Dan and Jack, who worked on The Nature Conservancy ranch last night, and Larry and I, we located a total of seven black-footed ferrets last night. Four were verified as never having been vaccinated against plague and the remaining three remain unidentified. Despite the lack of sleep, I feel great.

11:27 a.m.
I’m on the phone with a local reporter who is ready to run a front-page story on plague causing the disappearance of prairie dogs in Kansas. I tell him that would be a mistake. Black-footed ferrets cannot survive plague without vaccine. We found nearly a dozen ferrets, of which seven were confirmed unvaccinated. I have only one answer for the reporter; firmly I state “It is not plague.” I can hear his hesitation as he asks, “Well then what is it? Why have all the prairie dogs disappeared?” I reply, “I don’t know. That is the million dollar question.”

See Disappearing Prairie Dogs, Part 2>>

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