Black-Footed Ferret Flea Circus

April 14, 2009
12:02 a.m., Tuesday
I’m back in South Dakota and spotlighting black-footed ferrets. The weather has been extremely wet in the past few weeks as a series of storms has dropped copious amounts of snow and rain. I’ve been keeping busy in the office with paperwork, grant writing and reviewing papers for publication. It’s good to be out in the field.

12:15 a.m.
There is standing water in some areas, and I’m limited to mostly roads. In some spots the calling frogs are deafening. It’s springtime on the prairie.

4:05 a.m.
The guys from Badlands National Park are also out spotlighting for black-footed ferrets. They’ve captured two males and would like me to process them for vaccinations and blood work.

5:21 a.m.
One of the first things I do after a black-footed ferret is unconscious under anesthesia is comb the animal for a flea sample. Fleas. The very word makes you scratch your own skin. Black-footed ferrets live with fleas because prairie dog burrows provide an excellent environment for these insects to survive. As my friend Dr. Jerry Murray recently pointed out to me, fleas do best at about 65 degrees and humid conditions.

Part of being a black-footed ferret biologist is learning about all of the things that can affect or influence them. Unfortunately, fleas can sometimes have a devastating impact on black-footed ferrets when they transmit the bacteria that causes plague. I don’t know a lot about fleas, but they are one piece of a complex plague puzzle. Biologists like Dr. Dean Biggins have spent half their career studying plague, prairie dogs and fleas, but we still don’t have all the answers. Just like a giant 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, we have the corners and a few blocks on the inside, but we still cannot connect all the pieces.

5:53 a.m.
Both black-footed ferrets are processed, fully awake and ready to be returned to their burrows. It is light outside now, so I’m done spotlighting for the night. Before I turn in for the morning, I dial in to the weather radio — windy and clear for today with temperatures in the 60s. Excellent. For Wednesday and Thursday rain showers are almost guaranteed. Drat.

April 15, 2009
6:15 p.m., Wednesday
The rain is coming in waves. I know it’s best to not even try to go out. My attempt at spring spotlight surveys for black-footed ferrets has once again been thwarted by weather. What’s worse is the continued precipitation may be creating excellent environmental conditions for flea proliferation and possibly more plague. Only time will tell.

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