A caravan of vehicles stirring up mud and snowy slush wind their way onto a patch of shortgrass prairie punctuated with upturned mounds of earth. The seven men and three women, representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy, assemble outside their vehicles. The group quickly unloads the 10 cages holding the new residents of Smoky Valley Ranch.
The black-footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals in North America, has come home again to Smoky Valley Ranch, a 16,800-acre shortgrass prairie preserve in Logan County in western Kansas. The 10 black-footed ferrets get a glimpse of their new home through the crossbars of the cages holding them. Some are eager, tiny claws clasping the bars, noses peering out inquisitively. Others though, are more reticent, retreating to the backs of their cages.
“A couple of them were practically jumping in anticipation of being released, while others needed coaxing,” laughed Alan Pollom, Kansas State Director.
If the smile is still on his face, there’s good reason, the Kansas Chapter had almost given up hope of reintroducing the black-footed ferrets. “We had management issues to contend with and making sure we provided a suitable prairie dog population for the black-footed ferrets.”
The reintroduction was part of a federal program from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal of the program is to have 1,500 breeding adult ferrets established in the wild by 2010. Loss of native grasslands and the decline of their main food source, the prairie dogs, drove the ferret numbers down by the middle of the last century. By 1967, the black-footed ferrets were put on the federal endangered list. Within five years, they were thought to be extinct. This turned out to be a hasty conclusion, as a small pocket of ferrets were discovered outside of Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981.
For the past two years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff has Logan County as a high-priority reintroduction site because of the absence of sylvatic plague, a disease that has hit prairie dog populations especially hard. The presence of a healthy prairie dog population on the Conservancy’s ranch and three other nearby ranches encouraged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to experiment on the smallest area of habitat they have ever attempted reintroduction.
“The Conservancy’s willingness to enter into federal-private partnerships helped make the introduction a reality. As a result, this is one of the first sites on exclusively owned private land where we have reintroduced ferrets,” said Dan Mulhern, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Ferrets are nocturnal creatures who make their homes in prairie dogs holes or by modifying ground squirrel holes. The ferrets are released by tilting their cages over the holes and a black funnel bridges the gap between the cage door and the entrance to the hole. As the first ferret scrambles into his new home, the group sends up cheers mixed with sighs of relief.
“The reintroduction of these ferrets to the wild is important, not just for the species’ recovery, but also for the people of Logan County and beyond,” added Pollom. “The people of Kansas haven’t seen these intriguing animals in 50 years, and anytime we can move closer to removing an animal from the Endangered Species list, the whole nation benefits.”
To monitor the success of the program, each ferret is fitted with an electronic ID tag. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will revisit the site this spring and fall to check to see how many have survived and ,more importantly, if they have bred. Ferrets can produce up to four or five young per year. Born in May or June, the young do not come above ground till they are six weeks old. By August, the mother begins to separate siblings into different burrows and by early October, the young are able to care for themselves.
“We know there is a high mortality rate for newly released ferrets. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revisits the area in September, we will keep our fingers crossed that they have reproduced by then,” said Rob Manes, Director of Conservation for the Kansas Chapter.
Worries about the future seem to barely dim the smile on Pollom’s face as he expresses his hope for the future. “Welcome back to Kansas, guys. Here’s to a successful future filled with many kits!”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.