Rodents (and their fleas) that are associated with prairie dogs are considered important for the maintenance and transmission of the bacterium (Yersinia pestis) that causes plague. Our goal was to identify rodent and flea species that were potentially involved in a plague epizootic in black-tailed prairie dogs at Thunder Basin National Grassland. We collected blood samples and ectoparasites from rodents trapped at off- and on-colony grids at Thunder Basin National Grassland between 2002 and 2004. Blood samples were tested for antibodies to Y. pestis F-1 antigen by a passive hemagglutination assay, and fleas were tested by a multiplex polymerase chain reaction, for the presence of the plague bacterium. Only one of 1,421 fleas, an Oropsylla hirsuta collected in 2002 from a deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus, tested positive for Y. pestis. Blood samples collected in summer 2004 from two northern grasshopper mice, Onychomys leucogaster, tested positive for Y. pestis antibodies. All three positive samples were collected from on-colony grids shortly after a plague epizootic occurred. This study confirms that plague is difficult to detect in rodents and fleas associated with prairie dog colonies, unless samples are collected immediately after a prairie dog die-off.
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Vol. 44 • No. 3