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Twenty black-footed ferrets began a road trip on Friday, traveling from their nursery in Colorado to be released into the rugged badlands of the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the transfer during its meeting on Thursday in Helena. All expenses for the transplant are paid for by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Phillips and Valley county commissioners were consulted about the work and raised no objections, other than to comment that it seemed like a waste of time and money, said Ken McDonald, bureau chief for FWP’s wildlife division.

“Basically, they’re just trying to enable this population to persist,” McDonald said.

Attempts to re-establish the ferrets in Montana have not gone well. Since 1994, 235 ferrets have been released at UL Bend and another 264 were estimated to be born in the wild. That reproduction peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has since fallen.

Only three ferrets – a mother and two kits – were found during an October survey, according to Randy Matchett, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The kits were small, only about half the size they should have been, possibly because they were a late litter. Why there were so few ferrets, Matchett couldn’t say for sure.

The ferrets are dependent on prairie dogs as their main food source. They also use the prairie dog burrows to live in. Matchett said prairie dog numbers are good at UL Bend this year, but the small mammals often suffer from bouts of sylvatic plague, spread by fleas. The plague can also reduce ferret numbers, Matchett said.

“It has not been as successful as we’d hoped for in the long run, but there are a lot of reasons to keep it going,” Matchett said.

One of those reasons is to learn more about how to control sylvatic plague outbreaks. This summer, volunteers helped Matchett trap prairie dogs for a national study on a new vaccine that is given via food. Previously, the only way to prevent outbreaks was to individually vaccinate prairie dogs with an injection, or to dust to kill the disease-carrying fleas. Both were time and worker intensive.

Matchett is hopeful the new vaccination method works.

The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America. They were believed to be extinct until a population was discovered in 1981 near Meeteetse, Wyo. Now listed as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has attempted to re-establish ferret colonies at 19 sites across the West – four in Montana, one in Wyoming – with varying rates of success. About 1,000 ferrets live in the wild and another 150 to 220 are raised and released each year from the captive breeding program.

In Montana, black-footed ferrets are classified as an experimental nonessential population, giving the state more leeway in managing the animals if they expand beyond their release sites.

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