, Volume 20, Issue 8, pp 941-955

Landscape Structure and Plague Occurrence in Black-tailed Prairie Dogs on Grasslands of the Western USA

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Landscape structure influences the abundance and distribution of many species, including pathogens that cause infectious diseases. Black-tailed prairie dogs in the western USA have declined precipitously over the past 100 years, most recently due to grassland conversion and their susceptibility to sylvatic plague. We assembled and analyzed two long-term data sets on plague occurrence in black-tailed prairie dogs to explore the hypotheses that plague occurrence is associated with colony characteristics and landscape context. Our two study areas (Boulder County, Colorado, and Phillips County, Montana) differed markedly in degree of urbanization and other landscape characteristics. In both study areas, we found associations between plague occurrence and landscape and colony characteristics such as the amount of roads, streams and lakes surrounding a prairie dog colony, the area covered by the colony and its neighbors, and the distance to the nearest plague-positive colony. Logistic regression models were similar between the two study areas, with the best models predicting positive effects of proximity to plague-positive colonies and negative effects of road, stream and lake cover on plague occurrence. Taken together, these results suggest that roads, streams and lakes may serve as barriers to plague in black-tailed prairie dog colonies by affecting movement of or habitat quality for plague hosts or for fleas that serve as vectors for the pathogen. The similarity in plague correlates between urban and rural study areas suggests that the correlates of plague are not altered by uniquely urban stressors.