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Vector Borne Zoonotic Dis. 2010 Jan-Feb;10(1):27-35. doi: 10.1089/vbz.2009.0053.

Enzootic plague reduces black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) survival in Montana.

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Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lewistown, Montana 59457, USA.


Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) require extensive prairie dog colonies (Cynomys spp.) to provide habitat and prey. Epizootic plague kills both prairie dogs and ferrets and is a major factor limiting recovery of the highly endangered ferret. In addition to epizootics, we hypothesized that enzootic plague, that is, presence of disease-causing Yersinia pestis without any noticeable prairie dog die off, may also affect ferret survival. We reduced risk of plague on portions of two ferret reintroduction areas by conducting flea control for 3 years. Beginning in 2004, about half of the ferrets residing on dusted and nondusted colonies were vaccinated against plague with an experimental vaccine (F1-V fusion protein). We evaluated 6-month reencounter rates (percentage of animals observed at the end of an interval that were known alive at the beginning of the interval), an index to survival, for ferrets in four treatment groups involving all combinations of vaccination and flea control. For captive-reared ferrets (115 individuals observed across 156 time intervals), reencounter rates were higher for vaccinates (0.44) than for nonvaccinates (0.23, p = 0.044) on colonies without flea control, but vaccination had no detectable effect on colonies with flea control (vaccinates = 0.41, nonvaccinates = 0.42, p = 0.754). Flea control resulted in higher reencounter rates for nonvaccinates (p = 0.026), but not for vaccinates (p = 0.508). The enhancement of survival due to vaccination or flea control supports the hypothesis that enzootic plague reduces ferret survival, even when there was no noticeable decline in prairie dog abundance. The collective effects of vaccination and flea control compel a conclusion that fleas are required for maintenance, and probably transmission, of plague at enzootic levels. Other studies have demonstrated similar effects of flea control on several species of prairie dogs and, when combined with this study, suggest that the effects of enzootic plague are widespread. Finally, we demonstrated that the experimental F1-V fusion protein vaccine provides protection to ferrets in the wild.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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