But its distant cousin the black-footed ferret has not had such a cushy existence. Winnowed down to just 18 animals at one point, the black-footed ferret is finally resurging thanks to efforts of several tribes and federal wildlife officials.
Forty years ago the black-footed ferret was so close to extinction that it helped inaugurate the Endangered Species Act, one of the original 14 types of mammals listed. In fact it was actually thought to be extinct until a small colony was found near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. Biologists captured 18 animals from that Wyoming population to start a captive breeding program, now located in northeastern Colorado.
That population plus a recovery program has begun to restore their numbers. Wild populations can still only be counted in the hundreds, but it is hoped they will eventually number in the thousands. The goal of the recovery program is a population of 3,000. Indian tribes have been deeply involved in helping achieve that marker.
Ferrets are specialized predators, depending largely on prairie dogs for their survival. At one time roughly 500 million acres of the western U.S., from Canada to Mexico, served as the range of three prairie dog species. The ferrets were resilient, able to survive quite well despite drought or fire or the disturbances caused when huge herds of bison thundered through prairie dog towns. That resilience started to change when European colonists started developing the West. The animals’ habitat fell prey to prairie dog slaughter after World War I, when millions of acres were poisoned.
“Probably a third of the range was farmed on the eastern part of the prairie dog range,” said Pete Gober, who is coordinating the black-footed ferret’s recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “By the late sixties or early seventies the acreage for prairie dogs had been reduced to less than one million acres. Ferret populations started blinking out as soon as prairie dog poisoning started in earnest.”
Prairie dogs and ferrets are also both very susceptible to plague, and when that disease arrived it struck both species very hard. Nowadays ferrets’ fate is looking up, though their comeback is not a sure thing yet. Habitat has bounced back but to a fraction of what it once was.
“They’ve come back to three or four million acres now,” said Gober.
Ferrets have been released at 20 sites in eight states, as well as in Canada and Mexico, Gober said.
“We keep about 300 adults in captivity [now], and we’ve maintained young to replace those adults as they’re getting older,” Gober said. “We’ve been able to release about 150 to 200 ferrets a year. Some have done pretty well, some it’s too early to tell, and others have gone badly, because of plague for the most part.”
Six of the release sites have been on Indian land. They include the Lower Brule Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, and Rosebud Sioux, all in South Dakota, plus the Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana and a deeded ranch in Arizona managed by the Navajo.
“We’re working with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe now to look at potential for ferrets there in the future,” Gober added. “The folks with the tribes have been great to work with. Tribes have disproportionally been involved in ferret recovery, I think because of their interest in wildlife, and also that’s where quite a few prairie dogs remain.”
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The black-footed ferret in the wild.
The Fort Belknap Reservation was the first to receive ferrets in the early ’90s. The initial concern, like the Cheyenne River Reservation, was loss of grazing land. The decision was made to release ferrets within their buffalo pasture. Later they were spread to other sites, and tribal members supported those plans. Nearly 200 ferrets were released but later the combination of plague and predation, primarily by badgers, hit the prairie dog and ferret populations.
“We continued to find occasional ferrets, and there’s still the hope they’re out there,” said Mike Fox, a tribal council member who was involved in the program during those early years, and who is eager to help with reintroduction efforts again. “We just haven’t done any intensive surveys in the prairie dog towns recently.”
Ferrets were released on Lower Brule Sioux land in 2006 and again in 2007, said Shawn Grassel, a biologist and tribal member on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. During the next three years, he said, ferret populations were probably at carrying capacity for the habitat. The release was focused on the area with the highest level of prairie dogs and colonies that provided connectivity to one another.
“It didn’t take long for ferrets to quickly become established and to do quite well,” Grassel said, but the efforts suffered a setback in the spring of 2011, when the plague hit. “That kind of took us back to square one. We lost well over half our complex where we had released ferrets.”
They received more captive raised ferrets that fall and again in 2012. They decided to scatter the animals into other areas that could support them so as to expand their range.
“Last fall we had some really good production in some of the areas,” Grassel said, adding that it’s too soon to know how well it will work. Last fall he could confirm a minimum of 27 ferrets on the reservation, though there may be more. “There’s always some unknown number out there we didn’t detect.”
Grassel said most tribal ranchers were supportive initially, and that support has since grown stronger as they’ve seen that ferret introductions did not affect their ranch operations. Non-tribal ranchers outside the reservation have also been supportive.
“Most of the time they were quite tickled that ferrets might be on their property,” Grassel said.
Some are concerned about the costs involved, pointing out that it’s a federal project rather than a tribal project yet costs the tribe considerable money.
“The tribe is having a hard time yet is still willing to go out of its way to do something for a national project,” said Mike Claymore, director of the Prairie Management Program for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “It’s not just the direct costs but also the loss of revenue of not being able to lease land containing prairie dog populations to ranchers.”
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Black-footed ferrets are starting to proliferate.
Claymore said his reservation has received 207 ferrets in the past 14 years and estimates the current population at between 30 and 50.
Gober concurred that the present system could be better. For instance it would be nice, he said, “to consider the impacts on the local landowners and provide some kind of assistance to local people for providing wildlife values that are a benefit to the nation overall.”
Similar programs have been very successful for species like waterfowl, he said, but the strategy has never been applied to prairie dogs and ferrets.
Inconvenience and cost aside, the tribes plan to press on as stewards of living things and the environment.
“It’s part of Lakota tradition to respect all life, whether it be the prairie itself, the grasses, or the prairie dog,” Gober pointed out.