Missing prairie dogs in hibernation

Despite initial concerns, plague has been ruled out

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.met

It's the latest whodunit for wildlife biologists -- this time a case of prairie dogs gone missing for nearly 30 days at several key locations in Logan County.

Questions abounded: Where did they go, why and is there reason for concern?

Two answers have developed:

* First, officials now think it's something as simple as hibernation, unusual but not unheard of, and possibly brought on by exceptionally dry weather.

* Those same officials can say what it's not, and it's not an outbreak of sylvatic plague -- what bubonic plague is called when it's found in the wild among animals.

"The evidence collected to date suggests it's not plague," said Mike LeValley, the wildlife biologist in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Kansas.

Ferret specialist Travis Livieri, who is assisting the FWS in its efforts in Logan County, is more direct.

"There's no doubt it's still a big mystery," Livieri said. " We don't have all the answers."

Except one, he said.

"It's not plague."

While there's been no evidence of plague, Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, remains concerned.

"We don't have any proof there's any plague," he said. "They've been trying hard to determine that. There's just dozens more questions than answers," he said.

There has been growing concern about the presence of the disease, and Logan County commissioners had hoped to talk with LeValley about just that at a meeting last week. The meeting was canceled due to the weather.

While the plague can be passed on to humans who are directly exposed, it's relatively easy to treat early on.

It's the hibernation explanation that's most difficult to confirm, but Livieri said there's evidence of it happening before, at a prairie dog town in Colorado. Black-tailed prairie dogs in Kansas typically don't hibernate, emerging even in the winter when mild conditions prevail.

It's thought that abnormally dry conditions brought on the Colorado hibernation.

Although Logan County had about average precipitation last year, little of it fell after July, making for uncommonly dry conditions.

While there's not much known about what triggers hibernation in black-tailed prairie dogs, there's plenty of evidence precluding the possibility of plague as the cause.

* There's the continued presence of black-footed ferrets, known to be especially sensitive to the bacteria. The ferrets have been reintroduced at two sites in Logan County as part of an effort to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Surveys have found ferrets that haven't been vaccinated for plague.

* Blood tests conducted on coyotes in the area have been negative for indicators showing the presence of plague.

* It's the wrong time of the year, as plague typically starts killing off prairie dogs and ferrets in the spring and summer of the year.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control even have tested a prairie dog -- and the fleas it had on it -- that dared to venture out into the open, as well as Larry and Bette Haverfield's family cat, which roamed the 10,000-acre complex before coming home a few days later only to drop dead later that night. The tests came back negative.

Fleas harbor the bacteria that causes the plague.

As weather conditions have moderated, Larry Haverfield said he's starting to see a few more prairie dogs on his ranch.

"We got to the point where we didn't see anything for about 25 days," he said. "Now, they're gradually coming back out."