A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service official says that Sylvatic plague has already infected some of the endangered black-footed ferrets in Conata Basin, South Dakota. The plague was confirmed last week in prairie dogs in Conata Basin, the site of a major black-footed ferret reintroduction area, just south of Badlands National Park.
Experts have yet to be able to survey the area for evidence of plague in ferrets but based on past events they estimate that the ferret population is already infected. Plague has previously wiped out black-footed ferret populations at three reintroduction sites in Montana. The ferrets are infected by fleas that have eaten deceased prairie dogs infected with the disease, or can become infected simply by catching it from each other from airborne particles, much like influenza in humans.
The federal government has spent millions of dollars on the ferret recovery program. Once believed to be extinct, a small colony of black-footed ferrets was found in western Wyoming in the 1980s. The ferret reintroduction in Conata Basin began in the mid-1990s, and since then the basin has been hailed as the most successful ferret reintroduction site in the world. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service admit that while trapping and relocating the ferrets in Conata Basin is an option, it should be considered a last resort.