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Plague impacts prairie dog population, no cause for concern

The plague

According to El Paso County officials, the plague was confirmed as responsible for the death of two prairie dogs at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. Although this is a relatively regular occurrence on base and throughout the Colorado Front Range, awareness of symptoms and risks is the best way to keep residents and personnel safe, and the overall risk is extremely low. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Halle Thornton)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

According to El Paso County officials, the plague was confirmed as responsible for the death of two prairie dogs at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.

Although this is a relatively regular occurrence on base and throughout the Colorado Front Range, awareness of symptoms and risks is the best way to keep residents and personnel safe, and the overall risk is extremely low.

Charlie Lawton, 50th Civil Engineer Squadron cultural and natural resources manager and biologist, said the plague outbreak was to be expected.

Lawton explained the plague spreads via fleas, and because the prairie dog population is extremely high this year, prairie dog populations are more likely to contract the plague.

“It’s not actually a big deal,” he said. “It happens every three to five years in Colorado. It’s incredibly common, especially during wet years, prairie dog population goes up and the population density is really high then the disease comes through and they’re all packed in their little holes and they get it.”

Lawton has been monitoring the population since spring, in the expectation this might happen.

“It was kind of the perfect storm,” he said. “If it was going to happen this was when it was going to.”

Lawton said although it is not a big deal, the base population should take precautions, especially with their pets.

“Keep your dogs, cats and yourselves out of prairie dog towns,” he said. “If you see a prairie dog either deceased or distressed, don’t go close or touch it.”

Lawton said although very unlikely, if bitten by a flea carrying the plague, one might experience flu-like symptoms, and should go to the doctor immediately.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, plague can be treated successfully with antibiotics, but an infected person has to be treated promptly to avoid serious complications or death.

“The chance of flea to human is extremely low unless you’re handling the infected creature,” he said.

Lawton said one prairie dog colony is infected, he expects all to be contaminated by the end of the summer.

“Young male prairie dogs are the ones who get kicked out when the population of one town gets too high, and they go off to find their own hole elsewhere, so it will get carried that way,” he said.

Though spreading of the plague is unlikely, the base population is encouraged to take the following precautions:

  • Protect pets with flea powder, drops, or a new flea collar. Keep pets on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats.

  • Stay out of areas that wild rodents inhabit. If you enter areas with wild rodents, wear insect repellent and tuck pants cuffs into socks to prevent flea bites.

  • Avoid all contact with wild rodents, including squirrels; do not feed or handle them.

  • Do not touch sick or dead animals.

    “The plague is a regular and expected occurrence, there is no cause for public concern and we’re getting out in front of it with some proactive, abundance of caution management techniques,” Lawton said.

    Out of an abundance of caution, Schriever leadership has closed part of the running track closest to the impacted colony along the west perimeter fence line between the Enoch and Irwin gates. Additionally, the Blue Road west of the driveway to Buildings 901 and 902 is closed.

    The 50th CES is coordinating to secure a pesticide treatment in the affected colony to eradicate the fleas and reduce the likelihood of the plague spreading.

    If you see a dead animal on base, report it to 50th CES at 50.ces.ceie.workflow@us.af.mil or call 567-3361.