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Battling For Black-Footed Ferrets And Prairie Dogs In The Face Of Plague

Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research works to save the endangered black-footed ferret by vaccinating wild ferrets against plague.

BY Marylou Zarbock
Posted: July 2, 2012, 10:05 p.m. EDT

Travis Livieri holds a trap with a black-footed ferret inside it
© Travis Livieri
In July and August, Travis Livieri will capture ferrets in Conata Basin to administer the first shot of plague vaccine.

Biologist Travis Livieri is on a mission, a mission that sometimes involves playing a wildlife version of a Pop Goes The Weasel game. It officially began in 2001 when he founded Prairie Wildlife Research, a nonprofit dedicated to research and conservation of prairie wildlife species and their habitats. Livieri is actively involved with the reintroduction of the endangered black-footed ferret to the American prairie and to preserving its food source, the prairie dog.

The job was difficult, but in 2008 it got a whole lot more difficult. That’s when plague arrived at Conata Basin in South Dakota, the black-footed ferret reintroduction site that Livieri monitors. Previous to the arrival of plague, Conata Basin was a shining success for black-footed ferret reintroduction into the wild. But plague has taken its toll.

“In Conata Basin specifically, my high was in 2007, I counted 335 ferrets that year; last year I counted 72,” Livieri said. “We’ve taken quite a big hit because of plague in Conata Basin. If it wasn’t for our two-pronged effort of dusting and vaccination, that number would probably be zero. It’s become fairly obvious that if we don’t dust and if we don’t vaccinate, both prairie dogs and ferrets will die.”

The dusting is done by several government agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — that put teams together to dust the areas around prairie dog colonies with insecticide to kill the fleas that carry plague. It’s a time- and labor-intensive process. Livieri said the crews ride the prairie on ATVs and have to dust every prairie dog burrow, year after year, beginning in April and lasting until July or thereabouts. Yes, it takes that long.

Livieri is currently raising funds to send him out to Conata Basin. His target isn’t the prairie dogs, it’s the black-footed ferrets. His goal? Vaccinating them against plague. He gets some help, including free vaccine provided by the army. It’s stored at the National Wildlife Health Center, so he calls in an order when it’s needed and it’s overnighted to him. The vaccine is temperature-sensitive, so it must be maintained at 4 degrees Celsius (about 39 degrees Fahrenheit). It also has another constraint. “It’s viable for about two weeks,” Livieri said. “So I’ve got about a 10 to 12 day window to use that vaccine.”

Late July is when Livieri jumps into action. Before that, it’s too soon for him to go out. Livieri said baby black-footed ferrets are born below ground in late May or early June, and he doesn’t want to disturb the mothers too soon. “That’s a stress they don’t need, me trying to capture them up,” he said. But by late July the baby ferrets are usually old enough to eat meat and be mobile, so Livieri said capturing the mothers at that time isn’t such a big deal.

camper trailer
© Travis Livieri
During his black-footed ferret expeditions in Conata Basin, Travis Liveri stays in a camper trailer to economize on expenses.

Although he gets the vaccine for free, donations are critical. “Funds are needed to find, capture and administer that vaccine,” Livieri said. “That will go toward gas/mileage, food, equipment/supplies, labor and everything else it takes to put me into the field to find, capture and vaccinate black-footed ferrets. It costs approximately $500 to fully vaccinate one black-footed ferret — that is, to capture it on two different occasions and give it shots. So $5,000 will vaccinate 10 black-footed ferrets against plague. Badlands National Park and the U.S. Forest Service have committed some funding to us for vaccination as well that will carry our efforts through the fall. They also occasionally provide assistance in the field, particularly in September and October.”

Livieri’s immediate goal is to raise $5,000 by August 1st. “We have raised $910 thus far from many incredible and generous folks.”

His current donation campaign began on June 15. He calls it Fundraising Friday, after a tweet he saw from someone who committed to donating $10 every Friday for the rest of 2012 to a favorite nonprofit. That person encouraged others to donate. Livieri thought it was a great idea for black-footed ferret fundraising and even for operators of ferret shelters.

In today’s economy, Livieri said he knows people don’t have large sums of money to donate. But the need is ongoing. “[Plague] is something we’re going to have to deal with in black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs forever,” Livieri said. He stressed that he’s not being negative. “We’re putting tools in the toolbox, it’s a battle we can fight, but we have to keep fighting it.”

“I’m expecting that we’re going to hopefully experience some years of regrowth here,” he said. “If we get into another wet cycle, might get into some more plague [outbreak] again.”

Livieri said the toolbox might expand soon. The National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, is working on a vaccine for prairie dogs.  It’s detailed in the article “Sylvatic Plague Vaccine” on page 50 of the March 15, 2012, Wildlife Professional magazine. Livieri said researchers are in the experimental stages of trying to figure out how to deliver the vaccine and doing field trials for it.

Livieri plans to make trips to Conata Basin in late July, late August, September, October and possibly November. The July and August trips are strictly for vaccinations. “The vaccine is most effective when they get two shots,” he said, “a primary, first shot, and then a booster.” Starting after Labor Day is when he captures the black-footed ferrets to vaccinate, microchip and do blood draws and population counts.

“There’s nothing easy about it,” he said. “Getting out there trying to find them and capture them is enough of a challenge, [add on] having to do it with the constraints of having to capture them twice and having to give them shots of a vaccine that has to maintain a certain temperature and certain freshness.”  He noted that data is still being analyzed, but some black-footed ferrets have developed protective titers with just one shot.

How does he find black-footed ferrets out in the field? He put together a video on the Prairie Wildlife Research website that shows the process. “The best method is still spotlighting — driving around in a pickup truck with a big light on top,” he said. The light catches the eyeshine of the black-footed ferrets as they peer out of burrows. “That’s still the most efficient method by far. We’ve thought about other ways, investigated other ways, looked at it, but still it’s just playing Pop Goes The Weasel. That’s part of what I do, I play Pop Goes The Weasel on the prairie at night.”

Livieri hopes to reach that $5,000 goal by August 1st. PWR already had plans for another fundraising campaign in September that will culminate on September 26th, which is Black-Footed Ferret Day.

Like this article? Then check out the following:
 < Blog: Saving The Black-Footed Ferrets, click here>>
 < Documentary Follows The Return Of The Endangered Black-Footed Ferret
     To Canada's Prairie, click here>>
 < Travis Livieri Dreams Big For Black-Footed Ferrets, click here>>

See all news, click here>>

 

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Battling For Black-Footed Ferrets And Prairie Dogs In The Face Of Plague

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Reader Comments
not well publicized; i stumbled on it. Got to be less expensive way to vaccinate, especially considering vaccine is free. $5000--even i as ferret lover can question the use of that on critter. Just what is it used on? salaries?
madeline, bozeman, MT
Posted: 7/25/2012 10:11:30 PM
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