The impacts of wide-scale plague outbreaks are far-reaching. Once thought to only affect small mammals, the dramatic die-off of prairie dogs in Thunder Basin National Grassland has shown us that the consequences extend far beyond a single species. As the area covered by prairie dog colonies decreased from nearly 25,000 acres to only about 125 acres due to the 2017 outbreak, researchers have been able to observe how other species have been affected.
The Effects on Mountain Plover
One species that has been significantly impacted is the mountain plover. This threatened species breeds mostly in short grasslands and relies on prairie dogs for nest sites and food, as they keep vegetation short. Since the plague outbreak and subsequent growth of taller vegetation, mountain plovers almost completely disappeared from the study area.
The Effects on Migrant Songbirds
On the flipside, taller vegetation can be beneficial for migrant songbirds such as lark buntings which prefer taller vegetation when they arrive in late spring or early summer. After the plague outbreak, these birds began to increase in numbers throughout Thunder Basin National Grassland, suggesting that this type of environment is more suitable for them than shorter grasses maintained by prairie dogs.
Unfortunately, not all species thrive in this new environment created by a plague die-off. Researchers found that predators such as ferruginous hawks, badgers and swift fox experienced a dramatic decline in numbers due to a lack of prey availability and fewer nesting opportunities among tall grasses.
Conclusion: The multispecies effects of a plague outbreak are complex and often unpredictable. As we’ve seen with Thunder Basin National Grassland’s 2017 die-off of prairie dogs, one species’ loss can be another’s gain—or vice versa—depending on the environmental changes it creates. It is clear that any wide-scale plague outbreak needs to be carefully monitored so that we can better understand its consequences for both individual species and entire ecosystems alike. Understanding these impacts can help us protect biodiversity and maintain healthy populations of wildlife into the future.