Don't blame prairie dogs, they’re doing the best they can

  First it was the plague, now it's monkey pox.

It seems like prairie dogs take it in the shorts every time a certain primate brings a new disease to this continent. What primate you ask? Well, the variety that includes you and me.

In recent weeks I've been gritting my teeth every time I heard a news story about pet prairie dogs spreading monkey pox. I've spent a lot of time in my car talking back to the National Public Radio news announcers. Saying things like, "Prairie dogs got monkey pox from Gambian giant rats that WE shipped in from Africa." Or, "About 40,000 people die in car accidents in this country every year. Can we please keep this disease-of-the-week in perspective?"

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that in the past I have trapped and relocated "wild" black-tailed prairie dogs in Colorado, out of the path of development and into habitat conservation areas. The black-tailed prairie dog is what is called a "keystone species." A keystone is the center stone in an arch; pull it out and the arch falls. Black-tailed prairie dogs earned this title because many other species are associated with them. One, the black-footed ferret, almost went extinct because we wiped out the prairie dog towns this little predator relies on. Others closely tied to prairie dog towns include the burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, swift fox and mountain plover.

One of the things a newscaster said that made me cringe was, "Since prairie dogs are so common..." Actually, we have destroyed an estimated 99 percent of all prairie dog habitat in the last 100 years. The federal government ruled a few years ago that the black-tailed prairie dog qualified for listing as a threatened species. Even so, the feds did not list it, saying other species were in more serious trouble. They left protection and management of the black-tailed prairie dog up to the individual states.

Management of wild prairie dogs always has to factor in disease --specifically, bubonic plague. About 100 years ago, one theory goes, a ship that docked in San Francisco brought in rats that carried plague-ridden fleas. Those fleas then began hitching rides -- and infecting -- ground squirrels throughout the West, including prairie dogs. Prairie dogs die quickly from this so-called sylvatic or wild rodent plague. They didn't evolve with it and apparently have little or no immunity. An entire prairie dog town of hundreds of animals can be wiped out in days.

Say the word "plague," and people understandably become alarmed. But the chances of a plague-bearing flea on a prairie dog biting a person are extremely remote. This is apparently because the prairie dogs themselves die so quickly. I know a woman who has relocated and handled prairie dogs for about 10 years, and occasionally some of those prairie dogs carry fleas. She has never had a problem.

Times have also changed. These days, plague is usually curable with a dose of antibiotics, assuming there is a correct diagnosis.

But now there’s this little problem of monkey pox. Toward the bottom of stories about prairie dogs and monkey pox, patient readers discovered that investigators believe monkey pox arrived here in giant Gambian rats that were imported for pets. These animals apparently infected young prairie dogs that had been captured to be sold as pets.

Since monkey pox, a disease related to small pox, can be fatal, the federal government imposed rules restricting contact with prairie dogs. Beyond the obvious health issue, some folks working to keep prairie dogs alive in the wild are likely to see this as a good thing.

They don't want wild prairie dogs captured for pets -- most pet prairie dogs come from the wild -- because captive breeding is difficult. I have mixed feelings. Assuming a prairie dog town is going to be destroyed, if youngsters are taken for pets, at least a few animals survive. And maybe they provide good PR for their still-wild cousins. Prairie dogs are very sociable, and when a young prairie dog is taken from its family group or coterie, it will bond with its human caretakers.

Now, it happens to be illegal to have pet prairie dogs in Colorado. Despite that, these new federal restrictions prompted Colorado to briefly ban relocation of wild prairie dogs, which would have no reason to have monkey pox. Recently the state lifted the ban, after getting approval from federal officials.

Also on the brighter side, I noticed that some news stories have begun to downplay the prairie dog angle in the monkey pox story. Once I even heard an entire radio report on the disease that didn't mention prairie dogs.

Maybe someone, somewhere, overheard me ranting in my car.

Patricia Walsh does natural resource work on in the Denver, Colorado, area and is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org).

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.