Lockhart: Thunder Basin is critical to recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret

Lockhart: Thunder Basin is critical to recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret

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Saving the black-footed ferret from extinction is a compelling and largely Wyoming story. Widely thought to be extinct by the late 1970s, a small population was rediscovered near Meeteetse in 1981. Soon after discovery, that population began to succumb to disease, especially from an invasive Old-World disease, sylvatic plague (bubonic plague), which can kill ferrets directly and devastate the prairie dog prey on which they depend. In a last-ditch effort to save the species, all survivors (18 individual ferrets) were live-trapped to start a risky captive breeding program. Following the capture of the last ferret from Meeteetse in 1986, the species was again considered extinct in the wild, and no other uniquely wild population has been found in North America since. Through monumental efforts by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and a host of other federal and state wildlife agencies, zoos, conservation organizations and international partners, captive breeding of this species has been enormously successful and the first reintroduction of ferrets back into the wild took place in Shirley Basin in 1991.

Nevertheless, black-footed ferrets remain highly endangered today and their precarious recovery saga continues. While enormous strides have been made in captive breeding and other management elements, the most critical, fundamental requirement necessary to sustain any wildlife population – suitable habitat – is both limited and declining across North America. Black-footed ferrets are an obligate predator and completely dependent on prairie dogs for survival and reproduction. Reintroduced ferrets do quite well when released on large, healthy prairie dog colonies. Sylvatic plague, a pathogen transmitted by fleas, continues to be a major problem in ferret recovery and several reintroduced populations were heavily impacted, or completely lost, when plague hit. But over the past couple of decades, management of fleas in prairie dog colonies and significant advances in plague vaccines to protect ferrets and prairie dogs have been achieved. Disease challenges continue to be addressed, but these promising efforts will be in vain if base prairie dog habitats needed to support ferrets are not preserved over the long term. This is the biggest remaining obstacle to future recovery of the black-footed ferret!

As a retired national Black-footed Ferret Recovery Coordinator, I spent the majority of my later career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trying to develop suitable ferret reintroduction sites across the western U.S., Mexico and Canada. That work was both immensely rewarding and incredibly frustrating. For example, both Conata Basin National Grasslands and Thunder Basin National Grasslands were recognized as two preeminent ferret recovery sites in North America and possessed suitable land base and sizable prairie dog colonies needed to support reintroduced ferrets. Managers and biologists at Conata Basin and the adjoining Badlands National Park accepted responsibility and took up the task of reintroducing ferrets in 1994. Conata/Badlands developed into an exceptional reintroduction site — a recovery area so successful that for several years wild-born ferret kits were trapped and relocated to other emerging reintroduction areas. Unfortunately, sylvatic plague eventually caught up with Conata Basin and although not as vibrant as before, it still remains a viable recovery area and supports a wild population of about 100 ferrets.

In contrast, Thunder Basin managers have done nothing to support ferret recovery and largely caved to political interests and local ranchers who don’t want to share federal grazing leases with prairie dogs. No reintroduction effort was attempted despite having one of the best potential reintroduction areas in North America in the 1990s. This failure by the Forest Service may soon be absolute and permanent following the October release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement Amendment setting forth a “Proposed Action” to remove future ferret recovery emphasis and greatly reduce both managed acres and densities of prairie dogs. This action would change the existing “No Action” 3.6.3 prairie dog/black-footed ferret management designation to a proposed 3.6.7 management action to emphasize grass production for grazing.

Widespread intolerance of prairie dogs by landowners persist over the West despite the fact that current prairie dog population levels are a tiny fraction of historical numbers, and despite the fact that prairie dogs are perhaps the single most important mammal of the plains and steppe regions of North America.

Prairie dogs are one of the base building blocks of the prairie/grassland ecosystem and provide food, habitat and shelter for a myriad of mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Native grasses evolved with prairie dogs and are more resilient in times of drought, and tolerant of prairie dog foraging and clipping.

Private land owners are not compelled to protect prairie dogs on their properties, nor should they. But ranchers should not be able to dictate management of state or federal public lands to the detriment of wildlife values and endangered species recovery. Over the 20 national grasslands across the western U.S., encompassing almost 4 million acres, surely less than 1 percent of the land mass can be dedicated to future ferret recovery and proactive prairie dog management in Thunder Basin?

The black-footed ferret is an important legacy species. It is the only ferret species native to North America and this elegant little carnivore is deserving of continued protection and management wherever possible. Thunder Basin is a key ferret recovery site without which species recovery in Wyoming and across its former range becomes far more precarious! It is unconscionable then for the Forest Service to prematurely foreclose such an important recovery area after so much work and resources have been vested in black-footed ferret recovery over the past three decades.

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