-Evidence of a plague outbreak led a Colorado wildlife refuge to close to the public and a business to cancel a fireworks demonstration last week.
Prairie dog lovers -- including Colorado's "First Gentleman" Marlon Reis, husband of Gov. Jared Polis -- want to relocate colonies instead of poisoning them or bulldozing their habitats. With only 2 percent of the prairie dog habitat left in the West, conservationists say they don't want the species to generate further ill-will and misconceptions.
Prairie dogs are ground-based rodents with tan fur, large eyes, short ears and broad, round heads. The animals live in matriarchal "towns" where they stand guard outside their burrows, nibbling grass and plants. Prairie dog "yips" when they see a predator make up a complex language, researchers say.
The plague die-off was first discovered in a black-tailed prairie dog colony near public areas of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, said David Lucas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife land director.
"When they disappear, people notice," he said. "If they hadn't died off near a public area, we might not have noticed right away and might have delayed our response." The agency closed the refuge to the public and has applied an insecticide called "delta dust" to prairie dog mounds in the park.
Plague was introduced on the West Coast 100 years ago and has been making its way east, Lucas said. Prairie dogs are susceptible to plague, which can kill off an entire colony in a few days. The last time plague was discovered in the refuge was about 17 years ago, Lucas said. "We were expecting it, and we had a plan."
The Tri-County Health Department said plague had also killed prairie dogs in Commerce City in an open space area and near a sporting goods store, which cancelled a fireworks display.
Symptoms of plague include fever, swollen and tender lymph nodes, chills and extreme exhaustion, the health department said. But the disease can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early.
Prairie dog advocates worry that the animals will be blamed for the disease, when in fact their die-offs are a bellwether that the disease is in the area.
"You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than catching plague," said Deanna Meyer of Prairie Protection Colorado.