Last week I witnessed an endangered species success story first hand. I ventured out to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in eastern Montana to see a few lucky black-footed ferret kits off to their new home. With fewer than 1,000 in the wild, black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered animals in North America. They feed on prairie dogs and live in prairie dog burrows, and the decline of prairie dogs has led to their precarious state.
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.