- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Researchers believe they may have found a vaccine for the plague and they’re testing it in Wyoming.

The vaccine, which treats the same disease that caused the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s, is meant for prairie dogs, according to The Casper Star-Tribune (https://bit.ly/1NPTWRF). Scientists are testing the vaccine on a prairie dog colony in Meeteetse.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center research scientist Tonie Rocke says nearly all infected prairie dogs die from plague, which in turn hurts the population of the endangered black-footed ferret. The ferrets eat prairie dogs and live in their burrows.

If the plague vaccine works, officials say it is one step forward in the battle to re-establish black-footed ferrets in their native habitat.

“We will not probably eradicate plague,” Rocke said. “This would be applied in very select locations where we want to manage the disease for ferrets or other reasons.”

The USGS, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other regional wildlife agencies are beginning the third year of a four-year study in seven states across the west to test the vaccine.

Beyond their source of food and shelter, black footed ferrets are also susceptible to plague, making a treatment that much more important.

In 1981, scientists had written off the species as extinct, until a solitary enclave was found near Meeteetse.

Through a captive breeding program, wildlife official began reintroducing ferrets. In the years since, almost 4,000 ferrets have been released at 21 sites in eight states. Some of those populations disappeared after plague wiped out nearby prairie dog colonies.

Now the plague vaccine will hopefully stem some of those problems.

“It would be a pretty big thing if this vaccine worked,” said Zack Walker, nongame supervisor for Game and Fish. “If we could maintain ferrets across a wide area, even if we had spots that went down, we would have a buffer. We have so few now, we can’t keep them around across their range.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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