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Habitat Alteration and Disease Dynamics in Black-tailed Prairie Dogs

Tammi Johnson, M.S. Student
Dr. Jack Cully

Project Supervisor
Dr. Jack Cully

EPA, USGS, KDWP, U.S. Forest Service
Sharon Collinge, Chris Ray, and David Augustine
Western Great Plains
April 30, 2007


Map prairie dog colonies, identify spatial dynamics of plague, and determine effects of plague on prairie dog abundance.

Progress and Results

Sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis) is an exotic pathogen that is highly virulent in black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), and causes widespread colony mortality and individual mortality rates > 95%. In this study, we investigated colony spatial characteristics that may promote intercolony transmission of plague Three spatial characteristics of colonies that may be important to plague transmission include: colony size, distance to nearest neighboring colony and distance to nearest drainage corridor. Multistate mark-recapture modeling was used to determine the relationship between colony characteristics and the probability of plague transmission among prairie dog colonies at three national grasslands in the Great Plains. At Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming, and Rita Blanca National Grassland, Texas/Oklahoma, the probability of plague infection within a colony increased with colony size, and declined with increasing distance to the nearest colony or drainage corridor. The patterns at Thunder Basin and Rita Blanca were consistent with either epizootic or interspecific transmission. Colonies at Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas, exhibited similar patterns, except that plague occurrence increased with increasing distance to the nearest colony, suggesting primarily interspecific transmission. Connectivity among colonies may be important to maintain population viability of prairie dogs in regions without plague; however, limiting connectivity among colonies may be critical to reduce transmission in regions where plague is present.


Johnson, T.L. 2005. Spatial Dynamics of a bacterial pathogen: Sylvatic plague in black-tailed prairie dogs. M.S. Thesis. Division of Biology, KSU. Manhattan.

Johnson, T. L., and J. F. Cully, Jr. 2005. Effects of colony connectivity on the spread of sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis) in black-tailed prairie dogs across the Great Plains. Second Symposium proceedings, The history, ecology, and economy of the Thunder Basin prairie ecosystem. J. B. Haufler, ed. Compact Disk.

Augustine, D. J., J. F. Cully, Jr., and T. L. Johnson. 2007. Influence of fire on black-tailed prairie dog colony expansion in shortgrass steppe. Rangeland Ecosystem Management 60:538-542.

Augustine, D. J., M. R. Matchett, T. P. Toombs, J. F. Cully, Jr., T. L. Johnson, J. D. Sidle. 2007. Spatiotemporal dynamics of black-tailed prairie dog colonies affected by plague. Landscape Ecology DOI 10-1007/s10980-007-9175-6.

Johnson, T.L. and J.F. Cully, Jr. Colony Spatial Dynamics Influence the Transmission of Sylvatic Plague in Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. Featured Student Presenter, Wildlife Disease Association International Conference, Cairns, Queensland, Australia. *2005 Graduate Student Research Award.

J. F. Cully and T. L. Johnson. Spatial dynamics of plague in three black-tailed prairie dog complexes, (Oral presentation) at the Annual Meeting of the Wildlife Disease Association, Estes Park, CO, August 2007.