20 to 30 black-footed ferrets could be released on ranchers’ land in July
Coming this summer to a ranch near you: A feel-good story about the last of a long line of ferrets who found a way to survive in the wilds of Wyoming when none of their kind could, then — at the edge of death themselves — were taken from their lands, brought back from the edge of extinction and finally, were able to make a triumphant return to their home.
Though that’s overly dramatic, it’s basically the story that state and federal wildlife managers hope to bring to reality in the Meeteetse area, as they reintroduce black-footed ferrets later this year.
The species was believed to be extinct when a group of ferrets was discovered west of Meeteetse in 1981. However, those ferrets were decimated by disease several years after their discovery, and wildlife managers decided to capture the last 18 surviving animals.
While it brought an end to the last wild ferret population, it was the start of a successful breeding program. There are now a few hundred of the animals in the wild and a few hundred in captivity.
“Every black-footed ferret known in the U.S. today ... resulted from this Meeteetse population,” said Zack Walker, non-game bird and mammal supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
In recent decades, the ferrets have been reintroduced to a couple dozen prairie dog colonies (they feed almost exclusively on the rodents) ranging from Mexico to Canada.
Now, almost 30 years after they were taken from their last home in the wild, wildlife managers want to return the ferrets to prairie dog habitat in the Meeteetse area. They’ve found a couple ranchers ready to take them.
Allen and Kris Hogg, owners of Lazy BV Cattle, and Dr. Lenox Baker, one of the owners of the Pitchfork Ranch, have each told Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they would welcome the ferrets onto their lands west of Meeteetse.
“We just think it’s a pretty neat deal to bring them back where they came from,” said Allen Hogg.
He suspects it’s unprecedented for a species to be taken out of an area, recovered and then returned to the area.
“I think that’s a pretty remarkable feat; we’re kind of excited about it,” Allen Hogg said.
Hogg’s parents, John and Lucille Hogg, were the first people to discover that ferrets had survived in the area; they learned of the animals’ presence when their dog, Shep, dropped a ferret carcass on the back porch.
While not all the landowners in the Meeteetse area are necessarily excited about every part of the reintroduction plan, “everybody seems to be OK with it,” said Alan Osterland, the Wyoming Game and Fish’s wildlife supervisor for the Cody region.
“Obviously, we feel it’s a worthy thing and it’d be pretty neat to see it come full circle and to have a success story related to something like this,” Osterland said.
In late July, Game and Fish hopes to release between 20 to 30 ferrets on around 3,200 acres of Lazy BV Cattle and Pitchfork Ranch land, Walker said.
The plans are dependent on how many kits are raised in captivity this year and how many ferrets Fish and Wildlife can spare for the Meeteetse site, he said. Black-footed ferrets typically breed in March and April and give birth in May. Game and Fish should have a final answer on their ferret allocation by June, Walker said.
The reintroduction in Meeteetse is part of a larger effort to build the number of wild ferrets and remove the animal from the endangered species list.
Under Fish and Wildlife’s current delisting plan, Wyoming needs to eventually have about 340 of the small predators on at least 70,000 acres of prairie dog habitat. In total, Fish and Wildlife hopes to establish 3,000 adults in at least 30 different populations across nine different states. The agency has projected it can meet the goal by around 2043.
Park County commissioners got a briefing on the black-footed ferret reintroduction plans earlier this month. Although expressing interest in seeing the ferrets returned to Meeteetse, some commissioners remained skeptical of all things related to endangered species management.
“It’s very apparent to me that the Endangered Species Act has nothing to do with the animal anymore; it’s political and it has to do with control,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden. “And that’s my biggest fear. We look at what’s happened with the wolf and the grizzly bear and all of the rest of it.”
Commissioners asked what would happen if the ferrets move to other private lands or public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Game and Fish and Fish and Wildlife representatives assured commissioners there would be no impact on neighboring landowners: ferrets that wander off simply would not be tracked, they said.
Walker added that ferrets reintroduced to Shirley Basin, south of Casper, have taken up residence on BLM land without dramatic effects. Ferrets were first introduced to the area in 1991, and Walker said the BLM has continued to allow development — like wind turbines — in the 25 years since. The Shirley Basin population has proven one of the most successful reintroduction sites.
Ferrets are being reintroduced in Wyoming under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. That designates the animals as a “non-essential, experimental” population and relaxes some of the restrictions that normally accompany endangered species. For example, landowners won’t be punished for accidentally killing a black-footed ferret.
The use of the 10(j) rule is meant to encourage Wyoming landowners to allow ferrets on their land. Walker said wildlife managers are also considering a national ferret incentive program that could include paying landowners a certain amount per acre of ferret habitat.
Fish and Wildlife’s black-footed ferret recovery coordinator, Pete Gobar, told county commissioners that the reintroduction in Meeteetse should shine a spotlight on all the good things that happen in the conservation of wildlife.
“One thing we keep repeating is that really we would like to have an example of an endangered species recovery that was voluntary, incentive-based (and) non-regulatory,” Gobar said.
“Wouldn’t we all,” said Commissioner Lee Livingston.