A feel good ferret story (mostly)


Last week, or maybe it was the week before, a familiar sound drifted over from the hay field abutting the property where I live. Pop! Pop! Pop! My boyfriend and I looked at each other: "Prairie dogs," we said in unison. Another few bite the dust.

Our neighbors don't seem to like the rodents, and boy do they have company. The tiny town of Nucla, in Colorado's Paradox Valley, once hosted the Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot, which bizarrely enough, made the pages of People magazine in 1990. Participants in the contest reportedly killed 2,956 dogs in just two days, with one of the winners taking out 47 with 50 shots. The vitriol the event inspired was indicative of the controversy that's long followed the prairie dog. "(S)ome (protesters) taunted, 'If you can't get it up in bed, shoot a prairie dog instead,' " reported People, "for which some were spat upon with tobacco juice."

Thanks to all this shooting -- as well as the squeeze of human progress and widespread poisoning (prairie dogs have been seen as competitors for grass with cattle, and their holes are a general agricultural annoyance)  -- prairie dog populations in the Western plains and grasslands have declined precipitously. They now occupy only about 2 percent of their historic range.

And as the prairie dog goes, so goes the black-footed ferret, which depends almost entirely on the dogs themselves for food, and on the underground tunnels they carve for shelter. Which brings me to the real reason I'm writing this blog: good news! Black-footed ferrets, which have been called one of "the most endangered mammals" in the U.S., are inching their way toward an unlikely recovery.

It was 30 years ago last month that a ranch dog near Meeteetse, Wyo., happened upon a wild population, and proudly brought a ferret trophy home to his owners. At the time, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct. The discovery launched an ambitious recovery effort. By 1987, all known individuals in the Meeteetse population -- a mere 18, down from 129 in 1984 thanks to disease -- had been captured to be bred in captivity. 

It was a risky bet. Ferret kits born in captivity had never before survived, and the species' reproductive biology was not well understood. The alternative, though, didn't seem any more promising. And luckily, the bet paid off: two litters of kits were born in the late '80s, bringing the captive population up to 25. 

Last year, 300 were born in captivity, and since 1991, thousands have been reintroduced to eight states in the U.S.: Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Kansas and New Mexico. Most recently, ferret number 7505 was reintroduced to the Badlands in South Dakota. His re-entry was one of a number of ferret-feting events last month to celebrate the anniversary of the Meeteetse discovery. Nationwide, the wild population is now thought to be 1,000 strong, with up to 250 individuals reintroduced among 19 sites annually. The effort is widely hailed as an endangered species success story.

But it's not without challenges. The ferrets haven't really taken to all of the reintroduction sites; only four populations are considered self-sustaining. And it's still true, as we reported in 2007, that "the recovered species may now have no place to live:" "(E)ven as ferrets recover, food and habitat for the animals are becoming scarce," wrote former HCN online editor Marty Durlin. "Prairie dog populations are at about 5 percent of their historic levels and the ferret's favored prairie habitat is also the target of energy companies." John Emmerich, deputy director of Wyoming Game and Fish, who also heads up the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team, told Wyoming Wildlife last month that, "The only thing slowing us up is quality reintroduction sites."

Exotic disease, namely sylvatic plague, that affects both prairie dogs and ferrets is also a problem. Scientists have developed a vaccine for it, which all reintroduced ferrets are treated with. But it's an imperfect solution. "A vaccine is far from effective in the field," Bob Oakleaf, with Wyoming Game and Fish, who has worked with ferrets since the mid-'80s, told Wyoming Wildlife. "We have to capture each ferret twice in a short window of time, a week or so, which is difficult and costly, especially considering these animals can stay underground for six or seven days at a time. ... Plus, ferrets don't live that long, so every year, we would have to vaccinate a lot of animals."

Should you need a reason to root for their continued success, I give you this bit of uber-cuteness, a black-footed ferret -- dancing!


Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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