A Columbus, Neb., biologist might have discovered the first wild colony of an endangered species since the Meeteetse find in 1981.
Mike Gutzmer, with Columbus-based New Century Environmental LLC, found three black-footed ferrets during an endangered species survey in South Dakota.
The black-footed ferret is the most endangered mammal in America and has been on the endangered species list since 1967.
It has been more than 30 years since the black-footed ferret was found in the wild in Meeteetse. There have been several populations of the animal reintroduced by scientists over the years in eight states.
The black-footed ferret used to number in the tens of thousands, but because of habitat loss and disease, the animal faced extinction. It was presumed extinct in the wild in 1987. About 1,000 of the ferrets are recorded today, with 750 living in the wild and another 250 in captivity.
The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to the Americas. They are part of the weasel family and are yellow, buff or white with a black “mask” across the eyes. They weigh between 1.4 to 2.5 pounds and measure 19 to 24 inches in length.
The discovery of the wild colony on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is like “finding a needle in a haystack,” Gutzmer said.
“Typically when endangered or threatened species surveys are conducted, most if not all the time, plants or animals are seldom documented,” he said.
After undocumented sightings of the black-footed ferret were reported by locals on the reservation, Gutzmer was hired as a tribal biologist to conduct a survey.
The nocturnal surveys started Oct. 1. It took nearly a month to spot a ferret on the more than 80 acres of land housing 200 prairie dog towns. Ferrets depend on prairie dogs for food and use their burrows for shelter.
On early Halloween morning, a black-footed ferret was spotted. Two more were found the following day.
Gutzmer said the chances that those three ferrets — one adult and two juveniles — were part of a reintroduced colony are slim. The closest reintroduction sites are 50 to 100 miles away. .
What will likely take place in the next month is capturing the ferrets to take blood samples and DNA tests to prove they are from an isolated population.
Gutzmer said what makes this discovery so immense is the effect it could have on the ferret gene pool. Ferrets today have lost a significant amount of their genetic diversity because the population is so small. That loss has lead to weak immunity and reduced reproductive success.
The discovered ferrets could be combined with other populations to create a better gene pool, which could help prevent the species from going extinct, Gutzmer said.
“This gives us hope that there could be other isolated populations up there,” Gutzmer said.
Funding for the survey project was partially funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.