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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Returning Endangered Black Footed Ferrets to the Colorado Prairie

black-footed ferret
Louise wanders in the "ferret box."

 Open Spaces is featuring regular posts by Student Conservation Association(SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.orgToday, Lauren Kurtz, an SCA environmental education intern at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, Colorado, checks in.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is many things. It’s a tongue-twisting designation for one. It’s a former EPA Superfund site. Situated on Colorado’s eastern plains with  the city of Denver on one side and the largest airport in America on the other, it’s the largest Urban Wildlife Refuge in the country. This unique place is also safe haven for wildlife including bison, bald eagles, burrowing owls, and most recently, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, the black-footed ferret.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal has been planning for the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets for nearly two years. When I started in May, ferrets were a routine topic of conversation. For months, staff meetings were jam-packed with phrases like “prairie dog transects” and “ferret box.”

black-footed ferret
A black-footed ferret checks out its surroundings.

One priority was deciding the best location for the ferrets. Since a ferret’s diet consists almost entirely of prairie dogs and they use abandoned burrows for their shelter, this meant surveying prairie dog towns this summer and last. Surveyors walked 107 miles through prairie dog habitat to get approximate prairie dog density per square mile and to find towns with ideal burrow distribution for the ferrets’ eventual reproduction and dispersal.

I assisted with these surveys, walking prairie dog towns and counting holes, alongside Wildlife Biologist Mindy Hetrick, Seasonal  Biotech Scott Quigley and a handful of volunteers. On one of those swelteringly hot August days, my pedometer said I walked 11 miles. From all this trekking through the prairie, I hold the summer 2015 record for rattlesnake sightings, seven. Second place belongs to my co-worker Scott at five. No bites!

We also had to set up the infamous “ferret box,” which is a massive concrete structure with indoor and outdoor areas where two post-reproductive ferrets now romp around for public viewing and education purposes. I had the responsibility of landscaping the outdoor enclosure with native plants, sticks, rocks and even some animal bones found on the refuge. Others drew up blueprints, secured permits, put up drywall, painted doors and ceilings, and drilled through concrete to secure the outdoor enclosure fence.

Ferret Exhibit Opening and reintroduction day” was set for October 5. This date was marked on my calendar weeks before I grasped the significance of the line “Ferret Release @ 1pm,” although we ended up releasing them much later in the day.  Dan Ashe, the Director of the entire U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would be attending, so I knew the occasion would be momentous. But the day’s true magnitude didn’t really set in until I was standing over a prairie dog burrow, coaxing a disgruntled black-footed ferret out of a box and into a hole in the ground.  

I had a small wooden rod in my hand to direct the ferret from the animal carrier into its new home. I was wearing one Kevlar glove and an apprehensive attitude. What if the ferret didn’t go into the hole? What if instead he turned around and chomped down on my ungloved hand with his bone-crunching teeth?

Before we reached the hole my ferret would soon call home, 10 other ferrets were also reintroduced into their new homes. They were eager to dash into the wild. Male Ferret SB-7184, however, was hesitant to leave the confines of the carrier that I was cautiously tipping forward toward the burrow. The bumbling situation was only made worse by the crowd of onlookers watching my every move, excitedly waiting for him to slink to freedom. Maybe he sensed my uneasiness and hesitated before leaping into the unknown. Eventually, without looking back, he plunged down the hole thanking me with a loud chattering noise that sounds weirdly similar to the noise the ghosts make in Super Mario for Nintendo 64.

My ferret was now free to enjoy his new home but I am not done with ferrets yet! 

black-footed ferret
A two-person team conducts a nighttime search for black-footed ferrets. Photo by Steve Segin/USFWS

Several weeks after the release, I was able to ride along on an overnight ferret survey that took place one Monday night in November from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. The temperature high for the night was a whopping 15°F. Three teams of two drove around the refuge in UTVs, spotlighting the prairie landscape and seeking the emerald eye shine of the nocturnal black-footed ferrets. I was on a team with Refuge Manager David Lucas. Around 2 a.m. we saw two little green eyes reflecting in the distance. We shared a moment of jubilation, as we sat freezing in the dark night, under the soft light of a waxing Gibbous moon. We placed a microchip reader around the entrance of the burrow to identify the individual we spotted. The survey lasted three nights and 15 ferrets were located, considered a success for the first post-release survey!

black-footed ferret
Chigger checks out his home.

I am also the primary caretaker of the display ferret pair in the “ferret box” alongside fellow SCA intern Chelsea Wilson, and it seems that Louise and Chigger have settled into their new home quite nicely. Having the opportunity to take care of these endangered animals is extraordinary. Soon I will be educating the public about hardships facing the black-footed ferret, such as habitat loss, with the hope that such knowledge will inspire environmental stewardship and encourage conservation efforts. What started as an Environmental Educator position focused on monarch butterflies has been expanded into a ferret-releasing, poop-scooping, carnivore-feeding situation that I couldn’t be happier about.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is many things. It’s one of 25 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites. It’s a place that one of the most endangered mammals in North America can once again call home and It’s where I learned how to ”Wildlife Refuge” from the most passionate and dedicated individuals the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to offer. It’s where I had the honor to meet Service Director Ashe. It’s where I learned how to drive a stick shift. It’s where I have the privilege to serve as an Environmental Educator through the SCA. It’s a place I will never forget and will be forever grateful for.

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