Charlotte Conley, Conservation Associate
Last Thursday, I had the rare opportunity and great privilege to literally take part in Defenders’ mission to restore America’s wildlife. Three Defenders colleagues and I traveled to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana to help release 32 captive-bred black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) into the wild.
Black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered mammals in North America. In 1979 they were believed to be extinct when the last known ferret died in captivity, until a single population was discovered on prairie dog colonies near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. Black-footed ferrets have been listed as endangered since 1967, and now thanks to Endangered Species Act protections and partnerships, there are more than 500 animals in the wild.
Black-footed ferrets were first reintroduced to Fort Belknap in 1997, but perished when a plague epidemic decimated both the ferrets and the prairie dog population upon which the ferrets depend for food. Since then, the prairie dog colonies have rebounded on about 1,000 acres, but more growth is needed to maintain a ferret population in the long term. We have great hope that as the prairie dog colonies continue to expand, so will the ferrets.
This latest effort to restore black-footed ferrets at Fort Belknap began earlier this summer, when Defenders’ staff joined with World Wildlife Fund staff and tribal members to map active prairie dog colonies to see if enough were recovered to reintroduce black-footed ferrets. We found that prairie dog populations had indeed recovered sufficiently to begin another ferret reintroduction.
While black-footed ferrets are not necessarily controversial, prairie dogs can be a source of contention because some ranchers argue that they compete with cattle for grass. Because of this long-established view, they have been poisoned out of much of their historic range in the West. In recent decades, plague has been an additional blow to prairie dog populations. Along with habitat destruction and recreational prairie dog shooting, prairie dogs have been lost from more than 95 percent of their former range.
It takes the support of landowners, in this case the tribes, to allow sufficient prairie dog colonies to exist and serve as the requisite prey base for black-footed ferrets. Our efforts to conserve black-footed ferrets usually begin with prairie dog conservation: we help land managers take steps to prevent plague and protect areas from shooting and poisoning. This work at Fort Belknap with the tribal wildlife department and World Wildlife Fund set the foundation for the release to move forward.
On the day of the release, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Hughes made the 12-hour journey from the black-footed ferret captive breeding facility near Fort Collins, Colorado to deliver a pickup truck load of precious cargo: 32 black-footed ferrets. As we anxiously awaited his arrival, we visited prairie dog towns at the release site to select widely-scattered burrows for each of the new mustelid residents. Black-footed ferrets are released directly into or right next to an active prairie dog burrow where they will have access to prey and shelter.
As a crowd began to gather at the Fort Belknap gas station where we met Hughes, he opened the tailgate and we got our first glimpse of the black-footed ferrets. The 32 chattering ferrets generated much attention from residents coming and going as we waited for all of the release attendees to arrive. One local resident and tribal member said, “I remember when there used to be so many more prairie dogs and burrowing owls…. everyone is so excited…. prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are sacred to us.”
The procession of tribal members, project participants, and media representatives slowly made their way out to the black-footed ferret release site on 1,000 acres of protected prairie dog colonies in the heart of the tribes’ wild bison area. The release began with a prayer from tribal elder Randy Perez, words from tribal council member Mike Fox, and short messages from our Rockies and Plains Program Director Jonathan Proctor and World Wildlife Fund’s Kristy Bly, thanking the many partners involved in this project.
“We think it’s important to bring the ferret back to where we have the buffalo,” Fox said to a small group that gathered in Snake Butte pasture just south of town to witness the reintroduction. “It makes it a complete system again.” – Great Falls Tribune
Mike Fox released the first black-footed ferret near the pre-determined burrow, but that little female ferret had other ideas and decided to dart past the burrow and survey the landscape – watch a video of it here. She spent several minutes exploring her surroundings and giving the crowd quite a show before finally making her way into a burrow.
Once the first few ferrets were ceremoniously released, we worked furiously to get the remaining ferrets to their release sites and on the ground before darkness fell. As the sun set, all the ferrets found their way into their new homes in the native prairie grasslands.
This project would not have been successful without the cooperation and support of the Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife, Fort Belknap Tribal Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defenders and World Wildlife Fund. Fort Belknap is doing great things to restore native ecosystems from the bottom up: maintaining large tracts of intact land, managing prairie dogs to remain on the landscape, and working to give species such as bison, prairie dogs and ferrets an opportunity to reclaim their ecological roles on native landscapes.