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

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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