Endangered Ferrets Find Refuge on Southern Colorado ranch

from Wildlife Promise

A  black-footed ferret hesitates before bolting into a burrow on a southern Colorado Ranch. Photo by Judith Kohler

A black-footed ferret hesitates before bolting into a burrow on a southern Colorado Ranch. Photo by Judith Kohler

Biologists and ranchers Gary and Georgia Walker walked around their pasture, scouting the prairie dog burrows that dot the land. They were looking for the right spots to release their endangered cargo: black-footed ferrets, one of the rarest mammals in North America.

Not that it mattered. Soon after the slender, weasel-like creatures were coaxed out of the carriers and into holes, up popped their  little heads with the bandit-like masks. As photographers, news reporters and the rest of the crowd milled about, the ferrets  scurried across the ground in search of  a better burrow. They weren’t about to let the hoopla surrounding a major new milestone in recovery of their species ace them out of that sweet spot they were looking for.

A black-footed ferret released in a burrow on a ranch scurries around looking for a different spot. Photo by Judith Kohler

A black-footed ferret released in a burrow on a ranch scurries around looking for a different spot. Photo by Judith Kohler

A New Lease on Life, on Private Property

Starting Oct. 30, 55 ferrets were released on the Walkers’ ranch west of Pueblo in southern Colorado in a first-of-its-kind effort. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Safe Harbor program is seen as the next crucial step in building a self-sustaining ferret population in the wild.  The Walkers are the first private landowners to participate under an agreement that will allow them and their neighbors to continue their operations as usual even though an endangered species has taken up residence. They won’t be penalized if a ferret is inadvertently killed.

“If black-footed ferrets are ever going to be recovered, there needs to be a wider geographic distribution of them,” said Tom Dougherty, who first got involved with the recovery program when he was with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Dougherty, who later became the regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Boulder, Colo., office and senior adviser to NWF’s president, was on hand for the first release of captive-bred ferrets into the wild. He represented NWF on the Black-footed Recovery Implementation Team’s executive committee. Ann Morgan, the current regional executive director, is a committee member.

A Match Made Below Ground

Ava and Gray Moorhead take photos of a sleeping black-footed ferret that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs showed people before release of ferrets on a southern Colorado ranch. The ferret in the box wasn't among those set loose. Photo by Judith Kohler

Ava and Gray Moorhead take photos of a sleeping black-footed ferret that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs showed people before release of ferrets on a southern Colorado ranch. The ferret in the box wasn’t among those set loose. Photo by Judith Kohler

The ferret was thought to be extinct until a ranch dog named Shep came home with a dead one near Meeteetse, Wyo., in 1981. A small colony of ferrets was found living there and biologists started a breeding and restoration program. Cooperation from private landowners is seen as key to boosting the population of hundreds of the animals to the target of 3,000 during the next 10 years.

Gary Walker is happy to help. The release of ferrets on his Colorado ranch was the culmination of years of effort to enlist the animal in his battle  against prairie dogs, the ferret’s main prey. He says unleashing a natural predator beats using poison—which he opposes—or shooting the prairie dogs.

“We have grown our prairie dog population from 3,000 acres in the year 2000 to over 10,000 acres,” Walker says. “Cattle will graze and eat the grass to an inch, an inch and a half off the ground. Prairie dogs will eat to where you can’t even see it.”

The Safe Harbor agreement signed by the Walkers and several agencies gives the ranchers assurance that additional restrictions related to the ferrets won’t be imposed on their operations. The program gained an important endorsement from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, which supported a new state law authorizing release of ferrets on the property of willing landowners.

“The Colorado legislation is truly monumental because it gives land managers, private citizens and public agencies an additional tool,” said Tom Warren, former chairman of the NWF Board of Directors and current chairman of the NWF Action Fund Board of Directors.

Warren, a wildlife biologist, has worked with the Walkers through the years on conservation projects. Part of the ranch is adjacent to the Fort Carson Army post, where Warren oversaw environmental and wildlife programs.

“Black-footed ferrets are an iconic keystone species of the prairie ecosystem,” Warren says. “While we humans keep intruding on the prairie, it’s up to us higher members of the food chain to keep the keystone species alive.”

Pete Gober of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps members of the Walker family release a black-footed ferret on the family's ranch. Photo by Judith Kohler

Pete Gober (left) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps members of the Walker family release a black-footed ferret on the family’s ranch. Photo by Judith Kohler