Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Black-Footed Ferrets Line Up to Get Their Shots

• July 17, 2008 • 12:14 AM

For the first time, biologists are vaccinating wild ferrets with an antidote against the sylvatic plague that was developed for humans by the U.S. Army.

OK, OK, so ferrets aren’t mice, and they’re not even rodents, but the endangered black-footed ferret is one of the rarest mammals in North America, and they’ve got the plague.

It’s the sylvatic plague, to be exact, which is an exotic flea-borne disease that can be fatal for the ferrets and their primary food source, prairie dogs.

As of June, according to the U.S. Forest Service, the epizootic (that’s the almost-too-cutesy term for the animal version of a human epidemic) had infected prairie dog habitats and black-footed ferret colonies across 9,000 acres in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in southwestern South Dakota. Before the outbreak, population surveys placed at least 290 ferrets living in the region, but researchers do not know yet how many ferrets have died in the plague. In the past, similar outbreaks have depleted entire prairie dog colonies and the black-footed ferrets that eat them.

So for the first time, biologists are vaccinating wild ferrets with an antidote against the plague that was developed for humans by the U.S. Army; it’s currently being tested and modified for animals.

“Although the plague vaccine is still experimental in wildlife, we hope its use during this epizootic will protect as many ferrets as we can capture in the field and boost ferret survival during this critical period,” said Christopher Brand, research chief of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.

So far, biologists have captured and vaccinated 40 black-footed ferrets since the outbreak began. The vaccine is administered to prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets through a first shot and a booster shot about a month later (no word on how much time the animals have to kill in the waiting room beforehand).

The National Wildlife Health Center is also developing an oral vaccine for prairie dogs’ bait, which would mean humans wouldn’t have to handle the animals. And that’s no small thing: The same bacterium that sickens ferrets and prairie dogs also causes plague in humans. Each year, about five to 15 people get the plague, which can be treated with antibiotics; last November, a National Park Service biologist died after conducting a necropsy on a mountain lion that later tested positive for plague.

Biologists are also investigating the efficacy of spraying insecticide in prairie dog colonies to reduce the flea populations.

“We’ve had experience with burrow dusting in other areas, and we know dusting protects both species from plague during these outbreaks,” said Dean Biggins, a research ecologist and black-footed ferret expert at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado.

One measure of the project’s urgency is the number of federal agencies and private organizations that have lined up to lessen the outbreak’s impact. The USGS, Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are being joined by conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Prairie Wildlife Research and the Prairie Dog Coalition.

Matt Palmquist
A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Matt Palmquist, a former Miller-McCune staff writer, began his career at daily newspapers such as The Oregonian and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2001, he became a staff writer at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, where he won several local and national awards. He also wrote a humorous current affairs column called "The Apologist," which he continued upon leaving the Weekly and beginning a freelance career.

More From Matt Palmquist

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.