A black-footed ferret peeks out of the ground against a starry sky
RARE SIGHT: A black-footed ferret looks out of a Montana prairie dog mound. This composite photo was taken near a site where the endangered animals have been reintroduced. © John Ashley

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Return of a Ghost

Once thought extinct, black-footed ferrets are making a comeback on Western prairies

Spring 2017

The first ferret isn’t eager to leave the cage, and she lets everybody know about it, spitting invective that lands somewhere between a chirp and a chatter. And who could blame her? The previous 24 hours have brought big changes: capture, placement in a pet carrier, a long car ride and now this. Somebody is nudging her with a stick, urging her into another unknown. You’d yelp, too.

Eventually she takes the leap, darting into a plastic tube that guides her to where she belongs, whether she knows it or not. She descends into a prairie dog burrow, an ancestral homeland where she can finally disappear, hunt and breed. For the first time in her life, she is in the wild.

The nearby crowd of about 150 people gets only a glimpse of the masked predator, but folks go a little crazy. Shutters click, footage rolls and applause erupts. In the world of predator conservation, black-footed ferrets are rock stars, and fans are happy to know this one is home—safe and sound, at least for now. Being in the wild doesn’t mean she’s in the clear, however.

No ferrets have stalked this piece of prairie west of Meeteetse, Wyoming, for nearly 30 years—10 lifetimes for wild black-footed ferrets, the rarest carnivore in North America. They were twice believed to be extinct, but now they’re being put back on the ranches where their few remaining ancestors were once rediscovered. Getting them there and helping them prosper require coordinated help from humans in the form of science, preparation and money.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bred these ferrets, the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish helped prepare the land for their return, and The Nature Conservancy is ensuring that the prairies where they are released remain protected. Ultimately, the ability of black-footed ferrets to make a comeback will hinge on ranchers, a group that may be indifferent to ferrets but historically has not taken kindly to prairie dogs, without which the ferrets cannot survive.

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HOME ON THE RANGE: HOME ON THE RANGE A black-footed ferret is released at Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. The species was rediscovered here 35 years ago, and a successful breeding program is bringing them back. © Keith Ladzinski

The welcoming committee was a big one, but at least one person was missing. “My mother would have been jumping up and down with joy,” says Allen Hogg, whose ranch also hosts some of the 35 ferrets being released here in the Greybull River Valley in July.

For millennia, black-footed ferrets inhabited a vast swath of North America that spread from Saskatchewan down into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. But they are specialized predators that live only in prairie dog colonies, and when those colonies die, so do the ferrets. As settlers moved cattle into the plains in the 19th century, they saw prairie dogs as competition for grass. So with plows, bullets and poisons, they eradicated millions of acres of prairie dog colonies. By the late 1950s, ferrets were thought to be extinct, but an isolated population was discovered in 1964. The group died off over the next 10 years.

The species was again believed gone until 1981. That’s when, one morning, Hogg’s father investigated why the family dog kicked up a ruckus the night before. He found an unfamiliar animal dead in the yard and tossed it in the weeds. But his wife, a woman of fruitful curiosity, had him retrieve the carcass. The couple took it to a taxidermist in Meeteetse. The shop owner identified it and made some calls. Buzz started.

“The whole conservation community got excited,” says John Emmerich, then a biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish. Researchers and fi eld technicians descended on the ranch, spending long nights casting spotlights across prairie dog towns, scouring the darkness for the shine of green eyes, the haunting sign of living ferrets prowling above ground.

Then they spotted one. Then another, and more. Before long, they counted 100 ferrets living in the thousands of acres of prairie dog colonies on and near the Hoggs’ Lazy BV Ranch and its neighbor, the Pitchfork Ranch. Conservationists gave a sigh of relief.

And then came groans of dismay. The prairie dogs and ferrets began dying from disease.

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Ferrets are demanding creatures that can’t survive on just any piece of ground. Shaped like tubes of muscle—ferrets have about the same circumference at the neck as at the hips—and armed with impressive teeth, they rarely venture above ground during the daytime. In the wild, they live only in the tunnels created by colonies of prairie dogs. Quick and bold, ferrets dart through the extensive underground passages and dens, killing and devouring a prairie dog every few days. Ferrets have evolved to depend almost exclusively on these rodents and can’t survive without them.

There are five species of prairie dogs, but the most common are the black-tailed and white-tailed. Black-tailed prairie dogs, in addition to digging, tend to the vegetation around burrow holes like a greenskeeper at Pebble Beach, trimming grasses to no more than an inch or so tall to better spot approaching predators. Cattlemen wanted that grass for their livestock, so they declared war on prairie dogs.

But an even bigger menace arrived around the turn of the 20th century, in the belly of a ship on the California coast sylvatic plague, the same flea-borne disease that wiped out millions of Europeans in the Middle Ages. It’s especially virulent for prairie dogs. An outbreak can take out 90 percent or more of a big colony in a couple of weeks. And it happens often, almost entirely erasing the black-footed ferret’s food source.

The ferrets themselves are vulnerable to canine distemper, which killed many of them in Meeteetse in the early 1980s. It was followed by an outbreak of sylvatic plague, and by 1985 the ferret population was plummeting. Wildlife managers were left with a tough problem: what to do with the last surviving handful of one of the rarest animals on Earth.

“It was a very, very difficult decision,” Emmerich recalls. Nobody wanted to watch them wink out, but nobody knew how to raise ferrets in captivity, either. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided a captive-breeding program was worth a shot, hoping to keep the species alive while people worked on solutions to the disease problem. By 1987, all the last living black-footed ferrets—just 18 of them—were trapped in order to save the species.

The plan worked. Today, a successful breeding program, run by six partner organizations, has produced more than 8,500 kits over 30 years, all of them descended from those 18 animals rescued at Meeteetse. At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colorado, they live in a fenced-in prairie dog colony, protected from disease and predators, and learn to hunt prairie dogs before they are released.

Breeding ferrets has been successful. Releasing them into the wild has had its ups and downs.

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"To measure recovery at any given point, it is going to be difficult,” is how Peter Gober explains his work with ferret restoration. “You save it to lose it, to put it back, to lose it again.” Gober oversees the ferret program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and says most setbacks result from plague: Ferret populations that have done well for years on public land and private ranches disappear quickly when disease strikes.

So officials do all they can to fight the disease. The ferrets are vaccinated for plague before release. But they can’t be vaccinated against starvation if the prairie dog colony dies out. So at the Lazy BV and Pitchfork ranches, among many others, technicians scatter insecticide in prairie dog burrows yearly to kill the fleas that spread the plague.

Prairie dogs can be vaccinated as well, though the vaccine is a new development. Spreading peanut butter–flavored pellets injected with vaccine, at appropriate doses and over thousands of acres, is difficult and expensive.

Beyond the science, ferret supporters need to deal with a common attitude among ranchers who see prairie dogs as destructive varmints. The federal government came up with a plan that essentially rents prairie dog colonies from ranchers who agree to leave them alone, says Ken Morgan, who works on ferret recovery for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.

Since most of these ranches have been dealing with prairie dogs for years anyway, “the bottom line is their [cattle] operation doesn’t change at all,” Morgan says.

Allen Hogg, representing the next generation to live on the Lazy BV Ranch, welcomes the ferrets, partly because of his family history and partly because of something called the 10J rule of the Endangered Species Act. The rule was created years ago to hold landowners harmless if a protected species is accidentally harmed on their property. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish worked out a deal that extended the 10J rule to ferrets in Wyoming.

“With the 10J rule, we get the ferrets but without the baggage” of potential punishments under the Endangered Species Act, Hogg says. Plus, if the colony expands to places where it isn’t welcome, the prairie dogs can be controlled.

The Conservancy is in the process of creating a 2,500-acre conservation easement on Hogg’s property to protect the prairie from future development. The agreement will allow ranching to continue while ensuring that the ferrets (and the prairie dogs that they need) have ample space. A similar easement has protected 13,120 acres on the neighboring Pitchfork Ranch since 1999.

In Meeteetse, the return of 35 black-footed ferrets—35 years after they were fi rst rediscovered—occasions quite a party, attracting ranchers, TNC staff , politicians, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

“These little critters were running out there wild, and they’re going back today,” Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott says at the ceremony.

“It’s really put some excitement back into Meeteetse,” says Lenox Baker, owner of the Pitchfork Ranch, which hosted the event and saw the release of most of the ferrets that day. “We’re putting things back that should be here.” He says the white-tailed prairie dogs on thousands of acres of his property have never caused any problems, and he isn’t worried that they might expand their habitat. His cattle do fine among them. Now they are being rejoined by the ferrets that were almost gone forever.

Scott McMillion lives in Montana and has covered Western conservation issues for 30 years. He authored Mark of the Grizzly and edits Montana Quarterly.