Black-footed Ferrets — Will They be the Comeback Kits?

The black-footed ferret has gone from near oblivion to the brink of recovery in about three decades.

Flickr:USFWS/Rocky Mountain-Prairie Region. The black-footed ferret is one of North America’s rarest species.
The lithe, little weasel with the bandit-like mask was thought to be extinct until a ranch dog named Shep carried a dead ferret to his home near Meeteetse, Wyo., in 1981. Wildlife biologists who converged on the site found a small colony of live ferrets. They launched an ambitious captive-breeding and restoration program, resulting in hundreds of the critters currently spread across eight states.

Now, one of the rarest animals in North America could be on the verge of a comeback. The next big step is buy-in from private landowners who typically cringe at the mention of endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hoping ranchers and others will agree to host black-footed ferrets in exchange for assurance they won’t face restrictions that hinder their operations.

Foster program for ferrets?

Several federal agencies will offer assistance (including financial help) to participants in the proposed Safe Harbor program, kind of the conservation equivalent of foster homes for ferrets. The plan is undergoing an environmental assessment.

 “We’ve got to have wider geographical distribution of colonies of black-footed ferrets. The only way we’re go to achieve that is with the help of landowners,” said Tom Dougherty, who first got involved with the recovery program when he was with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Dougherty later became a regional director and a senior adviser with the National Wildlife Federation. He represented NWF on an advisory committee to the team overseeing ferret recovery.

Ferrets have been released – and some have been born in the wild – on federal, tribal, state and private lands in the Intermountain West and Plains. The recovery program’s goal is a population of 3,000.

According to the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team, the biggest obstacle to ferret recovery today is lack of suitable reintroduction sites.

Friendly environs for ferrets

Gary Walker, who ranches near Pueblo, Colo., thinks his land is more than suitable. His cattle ranch is stocked with thousands of acres of ferrets’ favorite food – prairie dogs. He’d like to see ferrets take a big bite out of the rodent’s population.

Walker also prefers working with – not against – nature.

 “I believe in nature and native predation,’’ Walker said. “It’s nonsense to me why we would be raising all these ferrets in captivity and not be introducing them into the wild, letting mother nature do what it is intended to do.”

Terry Fankhauser agrees. The executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association say his group “is on board” with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to find landowners who will host ferrets. It’s a turnaround for an organization that in the late 1990s backed a bill requiring legislative approval to reintroduce an endangered or threatened species not currently in the state. That followed on the heels of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s release of lynx to restore the long-haired mountain cat in the state.

The cattlemen’s group is now backing legislation that would authorize reintroduction of black-footed ferrets on the property of consenting owners.

“Landowners can participate and should participate in the conservation of these species,’’ Fankhauser said.

Black-footed ferret mother and kits, USFWS National Conservation Center
Black-footed ferrets were on the edge of extinction in 1987, with only 18 ferrets left. Today, captive breeding programs are slowly helping the species recover. This photo of a mother and her four kits was taken at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Center in Colorado
The Safe Harbor program includes assurances that “the very species ranchers are trying to help isn’t the death knell of their business,” he added.  A rancher wouldn’t get in trouble, if say, a ferret were accidentally killed.

Fankhauser would like to see similar programs aimed at keeping wildlife off the Endangered Species List in the first place.

Dougherty doesn’t understand the opposition the Fish and Wildlife Service plan has met in some places, including Colorado’s neighboring state of Kansas. He thinks it’s in everybody’s best interests to restore a threatened or endangered species to viable population levels, eliminating the special protections that can restrict land uses.

“If you told me 20 years ago that we had a chance in recovering the black-footed ferret, I’m not sure I would’ve believed it,” he added. “Now, I actually think we’re on the threshold of recovering the species.”