Survival of the black foot

Posted 5/31/11

On Friday, May 20 the Meeteetse Museum celebrated Endangered Species Day with the help of Sierra and some people who are very important to her species. Kimberly Tamkun of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led the presentation with the help of …

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Survival of the black foot


Meeteetse Museum celebrates history, recovery of black-footed ferret

Five-year-old Sierra nestles in her fabricated burrow, blinks a few times and looks out of a small Plexiglas window crowded with children trying to look at her.

Sierra is a living breathing black-footed ferret. Her existence is the result of a curious dog in Meeteetse and determined wildlife workers.

On Friday, May 20 the Meeteetse Museum celebrated Endangered Species Day with the help of Sierra and some people who are very important to her species. Kimberly Tamkun of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led the presentation with the help of honored Meeteetse local John Hogg and ferret finder Dennie Hammer.

“Our official count was 166 ... I am sure we missed some,” said Susann Kreitzer, oral historian and photo archivist for the Meeteetse Museum. “We had a lot of our residents come; they have a vested interest in the survival of the species.”

Kreitzer said it was a combination of curiosity and celebration.

“It was the first time many have even seen a black-footed ferret,” she said

“It was pretty cool,” said Jonah Kreitzer, Susann Kreitzer’s son. “It was just amazing to see one alive.”

Looking back:

plight of the ferret

In September 1981, John, Lucille and 10-year-old daughter Julie Hogg (now Sax) sat to breakfast at the family’s ranch house. The dogs were outside according to John Hogg and for a reason he said he didn’t remember he went to find them. There was Shep in the backyard with an interesting looking animal. “I took the pelt inside to show Lucille. She said we should get it mounted,” said John while recounting the story during the program.

“The taxidermist in town said, ‘Oh my God! It’s a black-footed ferret!’” recalled John Hogg.

“That taxidermist confiscated it immediately,” said Kristine Hogg, John’s daughter-in-law, who was raising her first son on the ranch at the time.

Julie (Hogg) Sax remembers the story in a few more details. “My mom said she woke up in the middle of the night to a terrible sound. Then next morning Mom had Dad go check on the dogs.”

“I remember the look on the taxidermists face when we brought it in — shock,” Julie Sax said.

“It was chaos, John and Lucille were instant celebrities,” Kristine Hogg said.

“‘Six-Twenty’ is what we called that first one,” said Hammer. After spotting Six-Twenty, adjacent burrow holes were blocked off and a trap was put at one opening. Hammer, fresh out of college, was given the duty of watching the trap.

“It was cold, all I had was a tarp to keep me warn and a lawn chair,” said Hammer during the presentation. “I didn’t care, I was so excited.”

At 5:24 p.m. that night, they had Six-Twenty in the trap, and took him to the Meeteetse veterinarian, Bill Gould.

The discovery of Six-Twenty led to a few other ferrets getting radio collars and the eventual discovery of between 120-130 ferrets over the course of a few years.

“We called (the scientists) ‘the ferret hunters’ even though they were just trapping them,” Julie said.

“They took me out to watch for their emerald eyes popping out of the prairie dog holes. I got to look for them through their big, high powered binoculars,” Julie Sax said.

Kristine Hogg said the majority of the original group of ferrets found were on the Pitchfork and ranch land now owned by the Hogg family.

Tragedy struck the black-footed friends of Meeteetse in the mid-’80s.

“We discovered canine distemper among the population,” said Hammer, who was then an acting game warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Tamkun, of Fish and Widlife, said a form of plague was also involved, most likely sylvatic plague. The two diseases rapidly depleted the Meeteetse population.

The Game and Fish and the USFWS made a decision to capture the remaining population, said Hammer.

“They told me that DNA from the ferrets being bred now traces back to seven of the original 18 from Meeteetse,” said Kristine Hogg. Tamkun could not confirm the statistic but has heard it before.

“All 18 were used to start the captive breeding program that began in Sybille Canyon, Wyo,” she said.

The program was later moved to the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Carr, Colo., said Tamkun.

Since then, black-footed ferrets have been bred in the Colorado facility and a couple others. Tamkun said they get time at the facility so they “learn how to be ferrets.”

After about six months, the ferrets are released into prairie dog towns ranging the Western plains from the Mexican to the Canadian border in designated release areas.

The Meeteetse Museum and the Fish and Wildlife Service will host the anniversary of Shep’s find in September 2011.