The black-footed ferret: Flagship species for the prairie ecosystem

If Helen of Troy’s beauty once “launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes that the charm of the black-footed ferret’s whiskered nose and masked eyes will help resurrect the fallen fortunes of short grass prairie habitat. This ferret truly is a charmed species, as this year marks the 30th Anniversary of its recovery from apparent extinction — a recovery that teetered on the brink of failure more than once.

On April 22, 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed a bluff in what would later become the state of South Dakota and enjoyed the sight of “immense herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, and Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” At the time, that boundless pasture covered 25 percent of North America; 97 percent of that is now gone. Lewis also observed prairie dogs. It was hard to miss the estimated 5 billion social, barking rodents believed to live on western prairies then. He missed the nocturnal black-footed ferret, however, even though prairie dogs make up 90 percent of its diet. It wasn’t until a fur-trader gave a ferret pelt to John Woodhouse Audubon (John James Audubon’s son) in the early 1840s that the black-footed ferret acquired his scientific name, Mustela nigripes.

[media-credit name=”Gary Raham” align=”alignleft” width=”236″][/media-credit]
Black-footed ferret

As prairie disappeared beneath the plow and pavement, the ferret’s numbers dwindled. By 1900, the problem compounded as sylvatic plague, the bacterial disease that wiped out a quarter of Europe’s population in the 14th century, made the jump from Asia to the Americas—probably in San Francisco. Plague is typically lethal to both prairie dogs and ferrets. In the late 1960s, in South Dakota, state biologists saw what they thought was the last of the black-footed ferrets die of another disease, canine distemper.

Then, 30 years ago, a Wyoming ranch dog named Shep brought back a trophy. His masked, weasel-like catch turned out to be one of a remaining population of about 130 black-footed ferrets that lived near Meeteetse, Wyo. In a few short years that population suffered epidemics of distemper and plague that nearly wiped out the species a second time.

In a final attempt to bring these animals from the brink of oblivion, 18 remaining individuals were brought into captivity in a collaborative effort between US Fish and Wildlife and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. Fifteen of these animals mated, but only seven individuals actually constituted the founder population for the resurrected species.

Since 1986, however, more than 7,100 young ferrets, or kits, have been raised at captive breeding facilities. Approximately 70 percent of the animals currently bred in captivity — about 300 — reside at the BFF Conservation Center just north of Wellington, according to Paul Marinari, Fish and Wildlife Biologist at the center.

Other centers are located in Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, and in Ontario, Canada. These facilities can now boast about their efforts. “To know that we came so close to losing this species and now have about 1,000 black-footed ferrets in numerous sites throughout their historic range — it’s encouraging,” said Steve Guertin, Region 6 Director. The BFF Conservation Center outlines their history and mission at www.blackfootedferret.org.

The BFF Conservation Center serves as a kind of half way house or boot camp for ferrets, one of the reasons for its successes in recent years. Staff members raise kits indoors, but when they reach maturity and have performed whatever reproductive chores required of them, they graduate to outside enclosures where they can practice the fine art of prairie dog hunting. All captive ferrets are microchipped and enter a database. They can be tracked and monitored when they are released to a suitable reintroduction site.

During a “spotlight survey” of prairie wildlife in late July, Marinari said that he hoped Soapstone Natural Area would be one of the next reintroduction sites for the black-footed ferret, perhaps as early as 2012. At 18,728 acres, Soapstone is close to the minimum size for a sustainable ferret population.

In addition to the usual bureaucratic hoops to jump through, Marinari and others are waiting on the completion of efforts to create an oral plague vaccine for prairie dogs that would help eradicate this disease in the wild. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have already created a vaccine for ferrets, which is given to all captive ferrets now. Dusting prairie dog towns with pesticides that kill flea carriers is the only current field method for control of the disease in prairie dogs.

Travis Livieri, another fan of ferrets and their role in preserving prairie habitat, heads a Wellington-based research non-profit called Prairie Wildlife Research. His organization, founded in 2001, carries out surveys, reintroduces native species, performs habitat enhancement projects, and works with others to resolve wildlife-related issues. As a nonprofit, Livieri believes he has a bit more freedom to implement “creative solutions to problems in the field” without some of the hassles that come from government red tape.

“The Nature of Things,” Canada’s longest running science documentary studio (http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/), features Livieri and his team prominently in a 50 minute DVD. The DVD, available for purchase September 26, discusses the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret to Saskatchewan in October of 2009 after an absence of 74 years. In July 2010, Livieri found the first litter of wild kits from the area, “the benchmark for success,” he said. (See their website at www.prairiewildlife.org)

Several events across the nation will celebrate the return of the black-footed ferret. In our state, people can celebrate at “Ferret Fest” on Sept. 24-25 hosted by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. (Contact Nicole Mantz at nmantz@cmzoo.org for more information.) Closer to home, on Oct. 27 from 6 to 8 p.m., at a location to be announced, the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas will host a program for children. As the date approaches, check for details at www.fcgov.com.naturalareas.

Like Meriwether Lewis, you may never see a wild ferret, but you can enjoy her handiwork every time you gaze upon a healthy prairie ecosystem and marvel at the “boundless pasture” before you. The black-footed ferret has helped teach us that the prairie is not just a physical place created by geography and climate, but also a complicated living fabric of creatures that work together to create balance and help make the world whole.

Gary Raham is a nature writer & illustrator.

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