It’s been 33 years since the black-footed ferret did its Houdini act by reappearing on the high plains of Wyoming. Only a few years earlier, it had been declared extinct in its southern range, and had not been seen in the wild for years anywhere. The ferret loss was due to the dramatic human-caused destruction of prairie dogs – its main food source – and prairie dog colonies. Then, in 1981, there it was again, its small head once again periscoping from prairie dog burrows near Meteetsee, Wyoming as it surveyed its dwindling habitat. Even the most jaded recognized this as a sign – a “do-over” rarely offered up by Mother Nature. That may be one reason for the passion that has followed this recovery effort. Collectively we’d fumbled the “last chance” once before and it wouldn’t say much about our commitment to conservation or our technical skills if we let the slinky-shaped ferret slip through our hands again given this reprieve. After many false starts, genuine recovery efforts started in the mid-1990s.
Last month, I attended the first-ever meeting of the Colorado black-footed ferret working group. You might think it curious that Colorado biologists had not convened earlier to discuss the fate of the species in the state, since Colorado has been “ferret central” for decades. Wellington, Colorado houses the federal captive breeding center where most of today’s ferrets are produced and trained for life in the wild. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs has likewise been producing ferrets for reintroduction for decades and is where the lead advisor of the group tasked with ensuring captive breeding success resides. The Wellington center is also home to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Black-footed Ferret Recovery Coordinator, and the Regional office of the USFWS is in Lakewood, where all things Endangered Species Act for most states within the range of the ferret are decided. Thus, the path to recovery for the ferret has always been led through the state.
Ferret reintroduction was given a chance here many years ago, in the northwest corner of the state. Unfortunately this early ferret reintroduction effort failed – likely due to a lack of protection for prairie dogs (a primary food source for ferrets), both from unregulated shooting and from plague, which killed many prairie dogs. In truth, not everyone in Colorado was gung-ho on ferret reintroduction. Colorado legislators passed a bill several years ago that precluded ferrets (and other endangered species) from being reintroduced anywhere in the state without legislative approval, which hindered participation of state biologists in the ongoing ferret recovery program for years.
Persistence paid off as the USFWS relentlessly chipped away at resistance to ferret restoration in Colorado. What broke the logjam in 2013 was a new program offered up by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in coordination with the USFWS that offered private landowners compensation for growing prairie dogs. At the same time, a new statewide “Safe Harbor Agreement” between the USFWS and the state gave regulatory assurances that the presence of ferrets would not hinder existing activities like ranching or oil and gas development. Seeing an opportunity to turn their wildlife management challenge into a benefit, private landowners made it known that it might not be such a bad idea for some to get into the ferret-friendly ranching business. And so a year ago, black-footed ferrets were released on private land. The Walker Ranch near Pueblo, Colorado is the state’s first try with the new program. Already, this year, demand is so high for the program that Defenders is supporting the NRCS and USFWS efforts to sort through the prospective new ferret-friendly landowners. We do this by supplying a contractor to collect data on prairie dog abundance that will help prioritize which landowners have the largest prairie dog colonies – and therefore the best chances of success for ferret reintroduction.
And so, amidst the glaze of donuts and the pots of coffee, Colorado’s biologists, those working for state, federal and nonprofit agencies, are at last sitting down to chart the future of the species in the state. Speaking personally, the renewal and hope that accompanies restoration and reintroduction stands in sharp contrast with what most people in the room are faced with daily…the tally of disappearing habitat, lost opportunities, and impacts to wildlife from things great and small. So the mood is jolly, a chance to get in on the ground floor of what we hope will be a new growth industry in Colorado…the comeback of the black-footed ferret and the grassland ecosystem it protects through its presence.
Steve Forrest is the Senior Rockies & Plains Representative for Defenders of Wildlife