Black-footed ferrets help “re-wild” Northern Colorado in September

Mark Sept. 3 on your calendars. That’s when the City of Fort Collins and the Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center north of Wellington will combine efforts to help restore a fragment of the West’s ancient prairie ecosystem—a living community that once covered 25 percent of North America.

In 1981, a Wyoming ranch dog named Shep, brought back a furry trophy near Meeteetse, Wyo., that demonstrated that black-footed ferrets, once thought to be extinct, still lived in the wild. Decades of dedicated effort brought the animals back from the brink of oblivion. Something in excess of 3,500 ferrets have been released at 21 sites in eight Western states and one location in Canada. Four sites support the bulk of the 500 ferrets now estimated to live in the wild. Conservationists hope the 34-square mile parcel of grassland encompassed by Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Meadow Springs Ranch will also allow ferrets (and later bison) to thrive in their original; habitat.

The City of Fort Collins opened Soapstone Prairie to the public in 2009. The management plan for the area calls for “conserving biological, cultural, scenic and recreational resources” — a tall order. The city provides hiking and biking trails, but must insure that the public understands enough about the natural history of the area to not abuse access to either biologically sensitive areas (that might compromise rare species survival) or culturally unique places, like the Lindenmeir Folsom-age site studied there by the Smithsonian 80 years ago. A popular and highly successful Master Naturalist program enlists area volunteers to spread the word about the collection of natural areas that provides wildlife room to roam and help maintain a vestige of the prairie ecosystem.

The city plans some sort of ceremony, most likely on Sept. 3 at the south parking lot of Soapstone Prairie, just west of the entrance gate. Details on that will follow. Dr. John Hughes, wildlife biologist at the Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, said that there would probably be a second smaller release of ferrets on Sept. 9. A total of about 40 animals will initially call Soapstone Prairie home. Thirty days post-release, Hughes and staff will do a “spotlight survey” to see how the ferrets are doing. Ferrets eyes reflect light with a characteristic color at night that allows such surveys to work. The forest service will continue to monitor the population annually to check for long-term survival.

The ferrets will be released near prairie dog colonies—their one-stop-shopping food supply. Daylan Figgs, Natural Areas Senior Environmental Planner, said, “Two colonies have been identified for reintroduction, one by the south parking lot and one between the south and north lot.”

Two hiking trails meander near the colonies, so the public should have some opportunities to see ferret hunting grounds, if not the animals themselves. Because ferrets are nocturnal, they weren’t even identified and named (Mustela nigripes) until the early 1840s, when a fur trader gave a pelt to John Woodhouse Audubon (John James Audubon’s son).

Sylvatic plague (the same one that wiped out 25 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century) can fell both prairie dogs and ferrets, and has jeopardized other ferret reintroductions. The U.S. Forest Service has been testing a new oral plague vaccine that seems to be effective and hopes that enough prairie dogs will gain immunity to keep the plague from devastating entire colonies. Hughes says that the vaccine approach will be a better long-term solution than dusting colonies with insecticides to kill fleas, the intermediate hosts of plague.

Another piece important to rebuilding the infrastructure of the prairie ecosystem is bison. Herds of these magnificent grazers maximized the health of grasslands. They wallow near prairie dog towns, keeping grass low enough that prairie dogs can survey their domain for predators, and their grazing habits help insure species diversity. Colorado State University researchers have been working diligently in recent years to develop strains of purebred bison (without the intermixed genes of domestic cattle) that can be reintroduced to areas like Soapstone Prairie.

Dr. Jennifer Barfield has been working with Yellowstone National Park, which has two of the last remaining herds of purebred bison. These bison sometimes carry brucellosis, a disease that can also infect cattle, so part of Barfield’s work has involved “washing” purebred embryos to remove the disease and then implanting them in disease-free bison (that don’t have to be purebred) to generate a disease-free generation. An early success came in June 2012 when a purebred calf was born to a surrogate mother at the Bronx zoo in New York. Barfield said, “We have continued to see success with our work doing embryo transfer and have even had success cleaning up semen from bison bulls that are seropositive for Brucella abortus, the bacterium that causes brucellosis.”

Barfield is working with the City of Fort Collins to ultimately place a herd of such bison near the same prairie dog colonies that will host the ferrets. Initially, the city would fence off 500-acres for the effort, expandable to an adjacent 1,500 acres, if all goes as planned. “Initially, we hope to introduce 10-12 bison at Soapstone,” said Barfield, “but the plan is to grow that number based on the success of the program with the hope that this herd can be used to supply other herds with animals of Yellowstone genetics.”

A successful herd of purebred bison on Soapstone Prairie could serve as a source for herds on a variety of public lands, including national and state parks, and as a valuable educational and esthetic resource. The city’s cadre of Master Naturalists may one day soon point to a more robust and productive prairie the bison could help create —- and admire the herd’s silhouettes against a horizon whose grandeur enticed more than 600 generations of humans to call Northern Colorado home for the past 13,000 years.

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