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Prairie Dog Town Plague

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“The Black Death,” as the bubonic plague was called, swept Europe in the mid-14th century and killed millions of people. Hundreds of years later, North Dakota also grappled with plague.

The first cases were detected in dozens of ground squirrels shot at a golf club and on ranches in the Crosby area in 1941. The rodents carried dozens of fleas infected with plague bacteria. State health officials connected the plague to an outbreak that had spread throughout the western states. They set up a rodent control program in Divide County, using poisoned bait. The North Dakota Agricultural College Extension Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also organized educational campaigns about rat control. Health officers from 12 states, including North Dakota, met in Salt Lake City for a conference to discuss how to halt the plague.

It would be decades later before plague would strike again – this time among prairie dogs in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It wiped out a 45-acre dog town in the park’s North Unit near Watford City.

Park officials closed part of the Buckhorn Trail to hikers, and notified North Dakota’s Health Department and the U.S. Center for Disease Control. On this date in 1986, the Health Department reported that the CDC had confirmed finding the bacteria in fleas collected from the dog town. State health officials began to test other dog towns in the park’s North and South Units.

Days later, wildlife officials found a neighboring, 100-acre dog town on the Little Missouri National Grasslands that had also been wiped out. The U.S. Forest Service began checking 15 other dog towns in the area. It’s unclear how the plague originated or how long it might linger, but no park visitors were infected.

Rumors spread that plague and inbreeding were responsible for a decline in the number of prairie dogs at the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, but the zoo director suspected old age instead. Twenty-some prairie dogs were shipped from South Dakota to boost the zoo’s population.

Prairie dogs are popular critters in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but visitors are warned not to feed them.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:

North Dakota State Department of Health. (1987). Fiftieth biennial report July 1, 1985- June 30, 1987. Office of State Health Officer: Bismarck, ND

The Bismarck Tribune. 1941, August 7. Page 3

The Bismarck Tribune. 1941, August 16. Page 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1941, August 28. Page 8

The Salt Lake Tribune. 1941, August 29. Pages 1, 10

The Hope Pioneer. 1941, October 9. Page 5

The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, July 16. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, July 20. Page 6

The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, July 28. Page 11

The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, September 6. Page 15

The Bismarck Tribune. 1987, May 22. Pages 1, 10

The Bismarck Tribune. 1987, May 31. Page 19

nps.gov/thro/learn/nature/prairie-dogs.htm

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