The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that successful reintroduction of the black-footed ferret is nearly as rare and elusive as the weasel-like predators themselves. So when the Bureau of Land Management asked the agency this summer for an allotment of ferrets for release in less than ideal habitat, it ranked the request at the bottom of the priority list.
But in early September, the Fish and Wildlife Service approved the BLM's request to release about 20 ferrets in a 900-acre area known as the 40 Complex, even though it has a relatively small population of prairie dogs, the ferrets' primary prey. The approval came with the stipulation that the BLM continue to maintain a shooting ban on prairie dogs. Local critics view the reintroduction with suspicion.
"I'm extremely wary of the sudden interest in turning (ferrets) loose after they'd said conditions (on the 40 Complex) were poor," says Ken Blunt, who grazes cattle near the release site. "The Fish and Wildlife Service just wants to force the BLM to close land to prairie dog shooting."
The BLM's Bruce Reed denies that the agency is considering further releases and shooting bans on surrounding areas, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated it would like to see a web of linked ferret populations across the county.
"We're hoping for a continuum of habitat between the 40 (Complex) and C.M. Russell (National Wildlife Refuge, another ferret release site)," says Michael Lockhart of the agency's Ferret Recovery Program. "It logically involves BLM lands between the sites, some lands that are very good habitat ... We've still got a ways to go."