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.
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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.