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Know the West

Completing a prairie ecosystem

Ranchers say the cost of recovery is exorbitant


FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mont. - At a ceremony last September, Joseph Iron Man Sr., spiritual leader of Montana's Gros Ventre Indians, picked up a long-stemmed pipe and raised it to the sun. After saying a prayer in his native tongue, he rotated the pipe east, south, west, north. Then he pointed the stem at the ground, the new home of the creature he was honoring - the black-footed ferret.

"The ferret will teach us how to survive," Iron Man said, speaking to a circle of tribal, state and federal officials invited to welcome back the "weasel with black eyes," released onto the Fort Belknap Reservation in September and October. "(The ferret) will show us how to interact with nature and one another."

For the Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine tribes, which share the Fort Belknap Reservation, the ferrets' return completes the buffalo culture. In 1974, the tribe brought bison back to the reservation, and the herd, about 400 head now, ranges across 11,000 acres of prairie dog colonies on the reservation. Like many other animals, the bison like to graze the short, weedy plants cultivated by prairie dogs. And the prairie dogs establish new colonies at spots grazed bare by bison herds.

Black-footed ferrets are an important part of the ecosystem because they live in prairie dog burrows and dine on their hosts, keeping prairie dog numbers in check. This, in turn, ensures a diversity of plants which help keep the bison alive on the range. The ferret, say tribal leaders, completes the circle between prairie dogs and bison and re-establishes a relationship to the land.

"We are finding our way back through these animals," says George Shield, an Assiniboine spiritual leader who attended the ceremony.

The ferret was thought to be extinct in Montana and Wyoming until a colony was found near Meeteetse, Wyo., in 1980. When disease threatened the colony in 1991, biologists trapped the ferrets and took them to zoos to breed. Since then, federal and state officials have spent $12 million to bring the ferrets back by means of release programs on the Fort Belknap Reservation and on federal land in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota (HCN, 11/11/96).

But potential disaster looms no matter how much money is spent or how much care biologists provide. In Wyoming, ferret reintroduction programs have been put on hold because sylvatic plague has wiped out many white-tailed prairie dog colonies. Ferrets died of the flea-borne plague along with the prairie dogs. To date, however, the disease hasn't shown up at ferret release sites on black-tailed prairie dog colonies in Montana.

The results of Wyoming's captive breeding program have been mixed as well. Only about 100 wild ferrets live in isolated prairie dog towns in a few Western states after six years of transplanting captive ferrets and hoping they would breed. In Wyoming, the 224 animals released over four years cost $5,000 apiece, not including the cost of radio collars and the salaries of wildlife biologists who monitored them. Only a handful of the ferrets' offspring have survived.

To improve survival rates, biologists are experimenting with pre-conditioning captive animals to the wild. At South Dakota's Badlands National Park last summer, 74 captive-bred ferrets got a taste of what it was going to be like to be on their own. Workers built 24 pens there, covering 2,500 square feet each, on top of existing prairie dog colonies. The biologists then released ferrets into the pens, hoping they would learn how to hunt for food. So far, ferrets that went through that program survive at a higher rate after they are released into the wild.

Most neighboring non-Indian ranchers aren't impressed. Ask them what they think about the expense of saving black-footed ferrets, and you'll hear not gratitude but criticism.

"The cost involved is exorbitant," says Darlene Dascher, who runs cows on federal lands south of Fort Peck, Mont. Like many ranchers, she says she has nothing against ferrets. It's the company they keep - the prairie dogs - that bother her. If ferrets are ever to recover, prairie dog habitat will have to be allowed to expand. Only about 1 percent of historic prairie dog habitat remains.

"I hate to feed the prairie dogs it takes to maintain the ferrets," says Montana rancher Walt Collins. "(Prairie dogs) completely devastate the range."

Jake Cummins, who heads the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, says ranchers would be more willing to get involved in ferret reintroduction if there were financial incentives to do so. "That could create some marked change in attitudes," Cummins said.

Beyond politics, the ferrets will always face an uphill battle. Captive-bred ferrets are especially vulnerable to predators in the wild and only about 30 percent survive. Coyotes are the main predator, but badgers and great horned owls also take their share.

In Montana, federal trappers now fly over an area before a ferret release, killing coyotes and badgers. They shot 22 coyotes at Fort Belknap a week before the September release. Biologists have also successfully used electric fencing to keep coyotes off release sites. But even without coyotes, colonies will remain small in size and short of male ferrets.

"The males limit each other by chasing off or killing one another." in competition for female ferrets, Montana state wildlife biologist Ron Stoneberg said. "A lot of males disappear in March and April. You'll find, at the most, one or two male ferrets on a prairie dog town." If there are no other prairie dog towns near the area, the ferrets die.

Meanwhile, for the tribes, the return of the black-footed ferret raises hopes for preserving old ways. "Bringing back the buffalo to the reservation was the first step in restoring our old ceremonies," said Shield, the Assiniboine spiritual leader. The return of the ferret is the final step. "It's important to teach the young what went on here 100 years ago."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.