20 September 2011 IN THE FIELD: Spotlighting For BFFs Posted by: Mike Leahy | Leave a comment | Share: If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on in the wild at night, it’s hard to beat helping your local black-footed ferret biologist spotlight for ferrets. Stick a magnetized spotlight on your hood and head out with one of the few federal or state ferret biologists in the country to help them count, capture, and vaccinate the ferrets in their care and you will see all kinds of interesting life between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. I did just that with the biologist for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a magnificent 1.1-million-acre refuge that hugs the Missouri River (and Fort Peck Reservoir) as it moves through northeast Montana. Check out my pictures: PausePlayPlayPrev|Next A view of the refuge from afar CMR is known for its abundant elk Refuge biologist Randy Matchett cover a cage trap he has set to capture and survey black-footed ferrets. Randy gets down and dirty setting up another trap. Two ferrets spotted popping their heads out a burrow Hunting dinner in prairie dog country These critters like to hide out in prairie dog burrows Captured ferrets are vaccinated against plague and have their fleas removed. I got to release a ferret after its vital stats were recorded in the lab. Open plains make ideal habitat for prairie dogs and ferrets. Sometimes called “The Yellowstone of the Plains” and best known for its elk, the refuge also reveals burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, badgers, coyotes, rabbits, mule deer, and much more after just a few hours of spotlighting. All of these species thrive in prairie dog colonies, which some people see as wastelands even though many scientific studies have documented the importance of prairie dogs to healthy prairie ecosystems. Black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered animals in North America – they were twice declared extinct, and the recovery continues to be thwarted by plague and intolerance from many ranchers for prairie dogs, which ferrets depend on for survival. Ferret biologists say at least 1,500 adult ferrets in at least 10 viable black-footed ferret populations, each with at least 30 breeding adults, are needed to improve the status of black-footed ferrets from endangered to threatened. This requires at least 10,000 acres of prairie dogs per site, and therein lies the rub – it’s hard to find such large blocks of prairie dog habitat given opposition from ranchers who want the grass that prairie dogs nibble for their cattle instead. Defenders has been working for years to promote enough large prairie dog complexes to support ferret recovery, but plague has thrown a wrench in these plans. Both prairie dogs and ferrets are very susceptible to plague, a disease not native to North America. It remains to be seen if the “CMR” Refuge will someday serve as a one of the viable ferret populations that move them toward recovery, but the Refuge is giving it a good go. Only five ferrets survived a recent outbreak of plague. But, rather than give up, Refuge biologist Randy Matchett spent 12 consecutive sleepless nights searching for ferrets. He counted 24 this year – not as many as he was hoping for, but a definite improvement and a tribute to the Refuge’s good wildlife stewardship. I joined him for three of those nights. Starting about 7:30 p.m. we set traps over prairie dog holes that Randy knew or suspected contained ferrets. We spent the rest of the night driving refuge roads looking for the green glow of ferret eyes as they popped out of prairie dog holes to see what was causing the commotion. Ferrets previously caught had been marked with temporary dye and were left alone. Traps – the humane kind – were set for new ferrets, or those that had not been caught yet this year. When caught, ferrets were taken to “The Hospital” – an old trailer – and sedated so they could be weighed, assessed, and vaccinated. Best of all for the ferrets, fleas were removed (to be sent to a lab and tested for plague). After awakening, ferrets were released back into the hole they came from. As the rosy-fingered dawn pushed back the night (and faint northern lights), we checked the traps one last time, closed them, and headed back to “ferret camp” to sleep as best as the 90 degree heat and the chattering prairie dogs throughout camp would allow. Read more about Defenders’ efforts to protect and restore black-footed ferrets. Post Your Comment Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (required) (will not be published) You May also be interested in Senate Wakes Up to Climate Change…At Least Some of Them Tonight more than 20 senators will be taking over the Senate floor to pull an all-nighter to “wake up” Congress to climate change. Wolf Weekly Wrap-Up Helicopter gunning kills 23 wolves in Idaho; Urge Secretary Jewell to abandon gray wolf delisting proposal — Call your representative by March 14; Washington wildlife agency urged to end support for abolishing federal wolf protections; The latest on Governor Otter’s wolf control board. Two Too Many Development Projects in the Ivanpah Valley While these projects most definitely directly impact a species that has been identified as threatened and is dependent on the habitat where they would be built, Silver State South and Stateline’s approval is most troubling for a bigger reason. You see, this isn’t just an issue for the Ivanpah Valley. Developers and agencies need to be conscious of how and where they plan energy projects all across the country. They need to look at renewable energy planning with a landscape-wide lens, understanding that building in the right places and making an effort to minimize environmental impacts from the start are essential.