About 30 black-footed ferrets that are natural predators of prairie dogs have been released in Colorado by wildlife officials, which is welcome news for ranchers who say the prairie dogs are destroying prime rangeland.
Biologists have bred thousands of black-footed ferrets in captivity, but they are not a self-sustaining species in the wild. That could soon change.
“These are killing machines,” said Pete Gober, who coordinates the black-footed ferret release program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They are wild animals that just have one thing in mind — killing prairie dogs.”
In 1967, the black-footed ferret was listed as endangered and protected. Colorado law prohibited any state role introducing endangered species without legislative approval. However, state law was relaxed this year to let ferrets be released on private land under new deals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal agreements allow the release of endangered species such as the black-footed ferret onto private land without holding the landowner responsible for incidental deaths. Neighboring landowners also are protected if they do not intentionally kill the wild ferrets.
On Wednesday, Pueblo ranchers Gary and Georgia Walker set their ferrets free and watched as they scrambled away.
Since 2000, the number of acres of their ranch land north of Pueblo West destroyed by prairie dogs has tripled to 10,000 acres of the 60,000-acre ranch.
“When you see a tumbleweed in Pueblo West, you can thank the prairie dogs,” Gary Walker told a crowd that gathered to celebrate the first release. “I started out 20 years ago to get black-footed ferrets. We finally have a situation where landowners can help with an endangered species without putting restrictions on their land,” he said.
Walker said he prefers the natural predator to poisoning or shooting the prairie dogs.