Black-footed ferrets once roamed the prairies of South Dakota. But the destruction of prairie dog towns vastly reduced the ferret's habitat and pushed it onto the endangered species list. Now, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe is restoring ferrets to the reservation, where the predators fill an important niche in the fast-disappearing shortgrass prairie ecosystem.


So far, the tribe has released 38 of 75 ferrets northeast of Whitehorse. A third of the ferrets are coming from a wild population discovered south of the reservation in Conata Basin near Wall, S.D. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages endangered species, approved the reintroduction and provided the tribe with the captive-bred animals.


"This is one of the last-remaining suitable habitats for ferrets," says Hayley Dikeman, a prairie-management biologist with the tribe. Dikeman cites the extensive prairie dog towns and lack of development on the reservation. She is hopeful that the reintroduction will work to boost the population of black-footed ferrets, now grown from 18 to as many as 600 in both captivity and in the wild.


Tribal administrator J.R. LaPlante says that bringing back ferrets to prey on prairie dogs is part of the tribe's decade-old prairie management plan. "We've been successful in reintroducing elk and bison," he says, "so there's no reason to think we won't be successful with the ferrets."


Contact the Cheyenne River Sioux at Prairie Management Program, P.O. Box 590, Eagle Butte, SD 57625 (605/964-8964).