Join us this week as we explore prairie dog ecology and conservation with Patrick McMillan, Clemson University naturalist. Patrick is the host of an educational TV program on wildlife and botany called “Expeditions.”
As discussed in yesterday’s post, prairie dogs are a keystone species that provides food for many other animals. Black-footed ferrets, one of the rarest carnivores in North America, are particularly dependent on prairie dog colonies. Scientists estimate that a ferret population requires 10,000 to 20,000 acres of prairie dog colonies to sustain itself.
Ferrets eat prairie dogs—each ferret consuming 100 or more each year—and raise their young in prairie dog burrows. Ferret babies, called kits, are born blind and spend the first two months of life being closely guarded below ground. In fact, ferrets spend about 90 percent of their time underground, usually emerging only at night to hunt for food.
It’s rare to see a ferret in the wild, and rarer still to see one during the day. But this clip captures one of the rarest moments of all. In this role reversal, a prairie dog fends off a ferret attack in broad daylight, chasing the ferret from burrow to burrow and exhibiting some abnormally aggressive behavior. The hunter becomes the hunted—yet another one of nature’s wonderful mysteries…this time caught on film!
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is helping bring black-footed ferrets back from the brink. Tribal representatives – along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and a group of students from the Boys and Girls Club in nearby Lame Deer, MT – gathered to release the thirteen ferret kits. The kits, which were the third group to be released on the reservation, arrived from the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in northern Colorado, where the species is bred in captivity. The release took place at four separate prairie dog towns on the reservation. Excitement filled the faces of kids and adults alike as the first ferret scurried into the nearest prairie dog hole.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe began reintroducing black-footed ferrets in 2008. As part of that effort, Tribal authorities granted protection from all prairie dog shooting and poisoning on 10,000 acres of land. Defenders of Wildlife donated $10,000 to assist with this initial protective effort.
As is the case with most of the other 18 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites across the west, there is a catch. Sylvatic plague, an exotic disease to which both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets have little to no immunity, threatens to undo the hard restoration work. Plague struck many of Northern Cheyenne’s prairie dog towns last year. But the tribe fought back by dusting many active prairie dog burrows to kill the fleas that carry plague. It seemed to work, and now black-footed ferret restoration continues with last week’s ferret releases.