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Tribal Collaboration Advances Black-footed Ferret Recovery in South Dakota
Photo Credit: Credit: Ryan Hagerty / USFWS
It's not every day a species deemed extinct is rediscovered, but this is how the story went for the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes)—North America's rarest mammal. Since the species' 1981 rediscovery in Wyoming, six ferret reintroductions have taken place in South Dakota by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), in partnership with Native American tribes, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Three of the six reintroduction sites are on tribal lands, where a couple hundred ferrets may now live.
A solitary hunter, the black-footed ferret once thrived in western prairies from Mexico to Canada, and into the sage steppe areas of Arizona north through Utah and Wyoming—wherever prairie dog colonies were found. Prairie dogs make up over 90 percent of black-footed ferrets' diet, and ferrets depend on prairie dog burrows for shelter and den sites. The ferrets' home ranges, typically requiring 50 to 100 acres or more of prairie dogs, makes for low densities across their occupied range.
The population of black-footed ferrets discovered in 1981 was nearly eliminated by 1985 due to exotic diseases like sylvatic plague. The last remaining ferrets where captured to begin a captive breeding program to save the species from extinction and provide individual ferrets for future reintroductions. Eighteen individuals captured became the founding members of a successful captive breeding program operated by the Service since 1987.
Photo Credit: Shaun Grassel / Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
In South Dakota, three Native American tribes are collaborating with the Service to reintroduce black-footed ferrets onto tribal lands. The Cheyenne River Sioux in north-central South Dakota have managed a reintroduction site since 2000. To the south, the Rosebud Sioux began a ferret reintroduction effort in 2004, and the Lower Brule Sioux have managed a reintroduction site in central South Dakota since 2006. The sites have mixed grass prairie habitat and are used primarily for livestock grazing. Tribal biologists, working closely with landowners, select suitable reintroduction sites and then monitor the ferrets after reintroduction. And the ferrets are thriving across these lands.
"By 2004, our reintroduction was so successful that we could spare some ferrets for other tribal ferret reintroductions," says Mike Claymore, a tribal biologist who has worked with the Cheyenne River Sioux ferret reintroduction for over 12 years.
These invaluable partnerships, developed over the past couple decades between the Service and various tribal entities, have paid tremendous benefits for the ferret by establishing new quality reintroduction sites in South Dakota and other states while assisting the tribes in playing a leadership role in management of imperiled species on their tribal lands.
According to Shaun Grassel, a biologist with the Lower Brule Sioux who has been involved with the black-footed ferret recovery effort for many years, the value of these working relationships were invaluable when plague began impacting reintroduction efforts.
"When we were considering measures to counteract the effect of plague, people working at other ferret sites provided ideas and resources to help counteract plague," says Grassel.
Due to efforts like this, the black-footed ferret continues to make slow but steady progress repopulating areas of its historic range. While their recovery is still challenged by threats such as plague, the success of South Dakota's various reintroduction programs demonstrates that teamwork can make progress against the odds. With a strong partnership approach, the recovery of the black-footed ferret – a species once thought to be extinct – is possible.
Meg Dickey-Griffith is a communications contributor in the Service's Mountain-Prairie Region.
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