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New Home, New Hope for Ferrets

It was just after nightfall on a chilly November evening, when US Fish & Wildlife Service Biologist Randy Hachette his trek into sprawling prairie dog towns of the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge. Along with him, a precious cargo: 6 male, black-footed ferrets. The ferrets chattered away in the back of Matchett's pickup as he bumped along, unaware that they’d soon be leaving the plastic confines of their carriers for what would be a veritable smorgasbord of their favorite food.

The UL Bend is part of the vast Northern Montana Prairies. It’s surrounded by the Charles M. Russell NWR and a neighbor to the Conservancy’s Matador Ranch.

Black-footed ferrets are one of North America's most endangered mammals.  Though they’ve been reintroduced in 18 sites in the United States, they remain imperiled. That’s because their principal food source, the prairie dog, remains under assault from shooting, poisoning and, most recently, sylvatic plague.

Ferrets were first released at UL Bend in 1994 – 35 kits and 5 adults. The reintroduction was followed by aggressive efforts to aid their recovery, including dusting for plague-carrying fleas and vaccinating for both plague and distemper.  Despite these efforts, only 12 ferrets survived as of the 2009 fall census, only 3 of them male. That imbalance could have led to extinction of all the males – and possibly, the whole population at UL Bend.

That’s what led this nocturnal expedition. The males we were releasing were bred in captivity and taught to hunt prairie dogs. But there was no effective way to train them to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry coyote, eagle or owl. So, Matchett figures that if 2 of the 6 survive – he did well. 

The Nature Conservancy is helping Matchett improve the odds. Members of our Matador Ranch Grassbank receive discounts to graze their cattle on our land, in exchange for conservation measures such as protecting prairie dog towns on their own ranches. 

By Barbara Cozzens

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