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The Mountain-Prairie Region

NEWS RELEASE

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

 

November 7, 2001

Contact: Debbie Fellner (Colorado Division of Wildlife) 303-291-7372
Ed Hollowed (Bureau of Land Management) 970-878-3601
Mike Albee (Bureau of Land Management) 970-826-5080 (breeding and preconditioning efforts)
Sharon Rose (Fish and Wildlife Service) 303-236-7917, x415

WILDLIFE AGENCIES WORK TOGETHER TO RELEASE BLACK-FOOTED
FERRETS IN COLORADO

Considered one of the rarest mammals in North America, the black-footed ferret is steadily making its way back into the wild.

On November 15, more than three dozen black-footed ferrets will be released along the Wolf Creek and Coyote Basin areas in northwest Colorado. The effort will mark the ninth wild release of the species since recovery operations began in the mid-1980s. It is the first release of black-footed ferrets in Colorado.

"Humans brought them to near extinction, we have a legal and moral obligation to bring them back," said Gene Byrne, a biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife who is coordinating the release.

Biologists from the Division are working in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to manage the release.

Wildlife agencies are also working closely with area residents. In April 2000, a local citizens’ group was formed to help draft a management plan for the release. The nine-member group, representing local mineral and land-use interests, will continue to handle and represent community concerns after the release.

Starting Nov. 15, about 46 ferrets will be released in Coyote Basin and the Wolf Creek Black-Footed Ferret Management Area (WCMA). The WCMA encompasses 52,038 acres of mostly BLM land and is located between Elk Springs and Massadona in northwest Colorado along U.S. Highway 40. The 51,563-acre Coyote Basin straddles the Utah-Colorado border approximately 32 miles southeast of Vernal, Utah.

The ferrets are being released under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, which allows species to be reintroduced as experimental, nonessential populations.

The black-footed ferret was federally listed as endangered in 1967 and was thought to be extinct when the last known animal died in captivity in 1979. But in 1981, a rancher’s dog in Meeteetse, Wyo., found and killed a single black-footed ferret, which led to the discovery of a colony of approximately 130 ferrets.

That colony was nearly wiped out after an outbreak of canine distemper and plague hit between 1985 and 1987. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department collected the remaining 18 ferrets and set up a captive breeding facility in Sybille Canyon in Wyoming.

The facility, now known as the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center, spearheads a national ferret recovery program in cooperation with 33 state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, Native American tribes and several zoos. The center will soon move to a new location north of Ft. Collins, Colo., and will include an indoor housing and breeding building, about 100 outdoor breeding pens, ferret holding and shipping buildings, a quarantine facility, manager’s residence and a small maintenance shop.

Since the breeding program began in 1987, more than 3,000 black-footed ferrets have been raised at 11 facilities throughout the U.S. In Colorado, one such captive breeding facility exists in Browns Park. The facility has produced 34 ferrets since 1999.

The reintroduction of black-footed ferrets into the wild began in 1991 in central Wyoming with the release of 228 captive-bred animals over a four-year period. Since then, ferrets have been released at eight sites in five states - Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, South Dakota, Montana - and in Mexico.

The reintroduction of ferrets into the wild poses many challenges to their survival. Black-footed ferrets are totally dependent on prairie dogs for food and habitat. Ferrets prey predominantly on prairie dogs and use prairie dog burrows to raise their young. Wildlife biologists estimate that ferrets need between 5,000 and 10,000 acres of concentrated prairie dog habitat to survive. Prairie dogs inhabit about 15,500 acres inside the Wolf Creek area and 10,000 acres of 51,563 acres of Coyote Basin.

But pressure from urban and agricultural development has substantially fragmented prairie dog habitat and poisoning and eradication have threatened prairie dog populations, thus reducing suitable habitat for ferrets. Disease such as plague has resulted in the most serious loss of prairie dogs, says Byrne.

"The black-footed ferret is an indicator species," said Mike Lockhart, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services coordinator for the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center. "Their endangered status shows that there are problems in our prairie ecosystem. It’s going to require significant habitat restoration to recover ferrets."

Initially, the survival rate of reintroduced ferrets was low. Only about 10 percent made it past the first critical 2-3 weeks living in the wild. Ferrets bred in captivity simply did not have the skills to survive in the wild, escape predators and hunt prairie dogs.

"Anytime you reintroduce any species there is a high mortality rate." Byrne said. "Captive-bred animals are not as fit as wild-born animals. They are going to make mistakes, not know where to go and make bad choices."

Biologists then devised preconditioning exercises to prepare the ferrets for wild conditions.

Young ferrets and their mothers were placed in outdoor pens with natural prairie dog burrows and conditioned to kill prairie dogs as prey. Eventually, the ferrets learned to seek burrows for shelter and secure their prey.

"Some releases in other states have been preceded with the removal of predators or erection of predator-proof electric fences to give ferrets a good head start," Byrne said. "After a few weeks, they have a good knowledge of the area and can take care of themselves."

The Colorado-Utah partnership operates a preconditioning facility near Irish Canyon.

Preconditioning proved to be a success. Once past the first few weeks, black-footed ferrets released today have a survival rate of between 40 and 60 percent in good habitat.

After the ferrets are released in Wolf Creek and Coyote Basin, the Division and other partners will monitor the colonies for threats such as disease and predation. Many ferrets will be fitted with radio transmitters and tagged with microchips that will allow biologists to monitor them. Ferrets born in the wild in subsequent years will be captured, tagged and tracked as well.

This year, wildlife officials plan more ferret releases in Mexico, Utah, South Dakota and Montana. In Colorado, areas near Little Snake, in northwest Colorado and the Cisco desert on the Utah border are being evaluated for possible future releases.

The overall goal of the recovery program is to have 1,500 black-footed ferrets living in 10 locations with no less than 30 breeding adults in each colony by 2010. Currently, more than 500 black-footed ferrets exist in the wild, including reintroduced captive animals and those born in the wild.

Black-footed ferrets are long, slender-bodied animals approximately 24 inches in length. They are marked by a brown-black mask across the face, brown head, black feet and legs and a black tip on the tail. Their historic range is believed to have extended from Canada to Mexico along the Great Plains, grasslands and shrub lands of the mid-continent.

For more information on the Black-Footed Ferret please go to our website:  mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/mammals/blackfootedferret .

 

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