Sylvatic Plague

Sylvatic plague is a flea-borne bacterial disease of wild rodents. Humans, pets, and wildlife can be afflicted with this disease.  Prairie dogs are highly susceptible to plague and are the primary food source of the highly endangered black-footed ferret, which is also susceptible to the disease. Sylvatic plague can decimate prairie dog colonies (90% or greater mortality rates), resulting in local extinctions and population reductions.

USGS scientists are working with partners to conduct field trials of an oral sylvatic plague vaccine for prairie dogs.  This management tool could be used to reduce the occurrence of plague outbreaks in wildlife.

Cooperative Research

Sylvatic Plague Immunization in Black-footed Ferrets and Prairie Dogs — National Wildlife Health Center

Effects of Soil and Colony Age on Flea Densities — Fort Collins Science Center

Ecology of Plague — Fort Collins Science Center

  • News

  • USGS Scientist gives talk at U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) Annual Meeting

    Wildlife Epidemiologist Tonie Rocke presented a talk on wildlife vaccines to the Vaccine and Technology Committee of the U.S. Animal Health Association at their annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, October 26-28...

  • Why hasn't the US eradicated the plague?

    The Black Death caused about 50 million deaths across Africa, Asia and Europe in the 14th Century. It wiped out up to half of Europe's population. Its last terrifying outbreak in London was the Great Plague of 1665...

  • Publications

  • Apparent field safety of a raccoon poxvirus-vectored plague vaccine in free-ranging prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.), Colorado, USA

    Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) suffer high rates of mortality from plague. An oral sylvatic plague vaccine using the raccoon poxvirus vector (designated RCN-F1/V307) has been developed for prairie dogs. This vaccine is incorporated into palatable bait along with rhodamine B as a biomarker. We conducted trials in August and September 2012 to demonstrate uptake and apparent safety of the RCN-F1/V307 vaccine in two prairie dog species under field conditions.

    Journal of Wildlife Diseases, v. 51, 2015

  • Age at vaccination may influence response to sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV) in Gunnison’s prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni)

    Gunnison’s prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni) have been considered at greater risk from Yersinia pestis (plague) infection in the montane portion of their range compared to populations at lower elevations, possibly due to factors related to flea transmission of the bacteria or greater host susceptibility. To test the latter hypothesis and determine whether vaccination against plague with an oral sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV) improved survival, we captured prairie dogs from a C. g. gunnisoni or “montane” population and a C. g. zuniensis or “prairie” population for vaccine efficacy and challenge studies.

    EcoHealth, v. 12, January 2015

  • Plague

    Plague offers readers an overview of this highly complex disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. The history of the disease, as well as information about Yersinia pestis and its transmission by fleas, is described. The section Geographic Distribution presents areas of the world and United States where plague occurs most commonly in rodents and humans. Species Susceptibility describes infection and disease rates in rodents, humans, and other animals.

    U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1372

  • Sylvatic plague vaccine and management of prairie dogs

    Scientists at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC), in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin (UW), have developed a sylvatic plague vaccine that shows great promise in protecting prairie dogs against plague (Mencher and others, 2004; Rocke and others, 2010). Four species of prairie dogs reside in the United States and Canada, and all are highly susceptible to plague and regularly experience outbreaks with devastating losses. Along with habitat loss and poisoning, plague has contributed to a significant historical decline in prairie dog populations.

    U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2012-3087