Thursday, 27 July 2017 06:04

Incidence of sylvatic plague in Grasslands National Park poses low risk to visitors

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Incidence of sylvatic plague in Grasslands National Park poses low risk to visitors Parks Canada

While an incidence of sylvatic plague has been found in the Grasslands National Park, the park remains open to visitors. Parks Canada announced last week that the death of one black-tailed prairie dog at the Broken Hills prairie dog colony in Grasslands National Park was a result of sylvatic plague, which is a naturally occurring disease in wildlife.


Adriana Bacheschi, the acting superintendent for Parks Canada's Saskatchewan South Field Unit, said sylvatic plague is present in the grasslands ecosystem and precautionary measures have been taken to avoid any further deaths among prairie dogs, which are a threatened species.
“It’s really safe to come to the park,” she told the Prairie Post. “This is a naturally occurring thing and we’re just being very precautionary and letting people know about it, because it’s unusual for us to be able to actually diagnose this and we need to make sure that people know about it, but it’s not as scary as it sounds.”
Two dead ground squirrels were found in the same area as the prairie dog. They were also sent for testing and the one squirrel had sylvatic plague, but the test results for the other squirrel were still unavailable.
The bacteria that is responsible for sylvatic plague in wildlife will cause bubonic and pneumonic plague in humans, but the last confirmed case of human infection in Canada took place in 1939 and it was not fatal.
Sylvatic plague is transmitted between wildlife through flea bites. Grasslands National Park is the only place in Canada where prairie dogs still occur in their natural environment.
“We don’t want this to become an epidemic that would have a big impact on the animals,” she said. “So because of that we were very quick to respond and we closed the colony. We started dusting to get rid of the fleas, but in terms of concerns to the public there are very little concerns.”
There are currently 17 prairie dog colonies in the park, and as part of the precautionary measures the Broken Hills colony and two other colonies in the area were closed to the public.
“The colony where we found the dead prairie dog is remote and is not really close to the area where we have a lot of visitors,” she said. “So it’s a very small isolated part of the park.”
The three prairie dog colonies were dusted with an insecticide to kill any fleas and to avoid the spread of the disease to other animals.
“There isn’t a lot of large movement of prairie dogs from the one colony to the other and some of the colonies in Grasslands are quite far apart,” Bacheschi explained.
The two other colonies are within a few kilometres of the Broken Hills prairie dog colony and therefore not in the immediate area where the dead animals were found, but those colonies were also closed and dusted with insecticide as a precautionary measure.
A previous case of sylvatic plague occurred in Grasslands National Park in 2010, when the death of one prairie dog was confirmed to be a result of the disease.
“Since then, because we’ve had that confirmed case, we’ve started monitoring for it over the years,” she said. “So that’s why it was so quickly found. Any time we find a dead animal in the park, we immediately send it for testing and then if there’s anything that looks even a little bit suspicious when they do work with the animal we start precautionary measures.”
These preventative measures include the dusting of especially some of the larger prairie dog colonies to control the number of fleas. Grasslands National Park is also participating in a testing trial for a sylvatic plague vaccine that has been developed in the United States.
Since 2010 all the prairie dog colonies in the park have been off-limits to domestic animals to reduce the risk of pets carrying infected fleas to humans.
“We always tell visitors that come to the park that they should have DEET and insect repellent in their clothing, that they should not have animals such as dogs in the prairie dog colonies, that all pets are not allowed in colonies, and we always talk to them,” she said. “Those messages about potential diseases are something that we’ve been doing for many years. So the message is still the same. There isn’t any extra health concerns associated with this for humans in the fact that right now it is very much limited to that area and it’s closed. So the rest of the park is still open.”

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Matthew Liebenberg

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