Black-footed ferret, © Kylie Paul/Defenders of Wildlife

Endangered Ferrets Return to Fort Belknap

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 rely on large prairie dog colonies for food and shelter.

Black-footed ferrets rely on large prairie dog colonies for food and shelter.

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.

Black tailed prairie dog

Black-tailed prairie dog (© Arthur Chapman)

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.”

Defenders team greets ferret transport vehicle, © Defenders of Wildlife

Defenders employees Russ Talmo, Kylie Paul, myself, and Jonathan Proctor greet the 32 black-footed ferrets in their transport vehicle.

Kristy Bly, Mike Fox and Jonathan Proctor thank organizers, © Defenders of Wildlife

Kristy Bly (WWF), Mike Fox (Fort Belknap tribal council member), and Jonathan Proctor share thanks to all who helped organize this important event.

Ft. Belknap Ferret Release, © Defenders of Wildlife

USFWS’ John Hughes and Defenders’ Jonathan Proctor are confronted by a released black-footed ferret who decided not to head down a tunnel right away.

Ft. Belknap Ferret Release, © Russ Talmo

A reintroduced ferret scopes out its new home.

A ferret scans its new home from its transport cage, © Defenders of Wildlife

A ferret scans its new home from its transport cage.

Black-footed ferret release, © Defenders of Wildlife

Charlotte Conley, our Conservation Associate, prepares to release a ferret back into the wild.

Black-footed ferret in burrow, © Defenders of Wildlife

Down the prairie dog tunnel and into a new life!

Caged black-footed ferret, © Defenders of Wildlife

Defenders’ Kylie Paul shares a moment with a ferret before its release.

A ferret still in its tube from its transport cage, © Kylie Paul/Defenders of Wildlife

A ferret still in its tube from its transport cage – heading into the wild is a little scary!

Black-footed ferret, © Kylie Paul
Mark Azure releases ferret, © Defenders of Wildlife

Mark Azure, Fort Belknap’s Fish, Wildlife, and Buffalo Director, releases the last ferret onto the Reservation. Success!

Black-footed ferret, © Kylie Paul

Black-footed ferrets, like other weasels, are inquisitive and can be bold.

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.

29 Responses to “Endangered Ferrets Return to Fort Belknap”

  1. Greg Adams

    So happy to always see ecosystems becoming restored.Love what is going on there. Please keep me posted!

    Reply
  2. Stephanie

    I can not thank you all enough for the hard work and the compassion that drives you to do what you do in saving our wild life. Thank you again so much!!

    Reply
  3. Markie

    YOUR PEOPLE ARE AWESOME!!!! KEEP UP DOING GREAT WORK!!! Laying treasures in heaven everyday!!!

    Reply
  4. joe Taggart

    Having farm and ranch ground in Id. and Wash. its so nice to see things going back to they way they should be. There is room for all the other critters not just man and his greed.

    Reply
  5. Georgina Burns

    Well done all you amazing people, thank you so much, this has made me HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY.

    Reply
  6. CrazySpirit

    Thank goodness for people like you all that care about our animals of the wild,Such a good thing you did to release those Blackfoot Ferret’s back to their Habitat at Fort Belknap,Thank you again for the wonderful thing you have done for these small creatures of the wild

    Reply
  7. Anneke Swanepoel, South Africa

    God bless your team! Thank you for this wonderful article and keep up the good work you are doing! Regards from South Africa!

    Reply
  8. Susan

    The Black Footed Ferret is worth saving. Thank for all the hard work to protect these creatures.

    Reply
  9. Paul F.

    Always great to read about your successes and restoration advancements back towards the continent we had. If only your organization, or one like it, had been around at the turn of the last century, we might still have Passenger Pigeons, Carolina and Louisiana Parakeets, Eastern and Merriam’s Elk, Eastern Cougar (although, that’s a recent one, something may have been done much sooner) California Golden Bear, Caribbean Monk Seal, as well as at least three other sub-species of Wolf and the list goes on! Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  10. Bruce Richter

    How can I obtain a pair of black-footed ferrets for a section of Colorado pasture full of prairie dogs who are ruining the ground? Would your program make them available… or?

    Reply
  11. Tina Robertson

    I have a free range ferret in my house, he has the entire house to roam….lol Fortunately he is a proper gentleman and only “does his private business” in designated pee pad corners. Love Ferrets !
    Thanks to everyone for all their efforts to reestablish the Black Foot’s, simply fantastic

    Reply
  12. Linda Smigelski

    Thank you for all the good work you do. We need to protect and respect all animals. They are gifts from God.

    Reply
  13. Kere

    I definitely know about the bowl of kiblbe being out. Lol. I made friends awhile ago with a lady in my area who? runs a ferret rescue in her house. I’m still working on teaching her about meat. She wants nothing to do with pre-killed, but she’s pulled at her leash trying to get at chipmunks outside before. For now though, going on vacation, and let me just say she was thrilled, she went to the ferret rescue (she also boards ferrets) she was thrilled at having about 15 new friends running around

    Reply
  14. Jack Chetcuti

    I am 10 years old and I am doing a school report on black footed ferrets.
    Does anyone know what their adaptions and their survival tactics are?

    Reply

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