Plague, a disease caused by Yersinia pestis introduced into North America about 100 years ago, is devastating to prairie dogs and the highly endangered black-footed ferret. Current attempts to control plague in these species have historically relied on insecticidal dusting of prairie dog burrows to kill the fleas that spread the disease. Although successful in curtailing outbreaks in most instances, this method of plague control has significant limitations. Alternative approaches to plague management are being tested, including vaccination. Currently, all black-footed ferret kits released for reintroduction are vaccinated against plague with an injectable protein vaccine, and even wild-born kits are captured and vaccinated at some locations. In addition, a novel, virally vectored, oral vaccine to prevent plague in wild prairie dogs has been developed and will soon be tested as an alternative, preemptive management tool. If demonstrated to be successful, oral vaccination of selected prairie dog populations could decrease the occurrence of plague epizootics in key locations, thereby reducing the source of bacteria while avoiding the indiscriminate environmental effects of dusting. Just as rabies in wild carnivores has largely been controlled through an active surveillance and oral vaccination program, we believe an integrated plague management strategy would be similarly enhanced with the addition of a cost-effective, bait-delivered, sylvatic plague vaccine for prairie dogs. Control of plague in prairie dogs, and potentially other rodents, would significantly advance prairie dog conservation and black-footed ferret recovery.
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Sylvatic plague vaccine: A new tool for conservation of threatened and endangered species?