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The Fourth of July and Black-footed Ferrets
Photo Credit: J. Michael Lockhart, USFWS
The Fourth of July has become one of the most important events in our nation's history. In 2007, the typically festive day in mid-summer was also the beginning of a successful black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) reintroduction in southwestern South Dakota. Like most conservation projects, the actual foundation for the project was laid out years earlier. This project really began when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service began discussions on whether the reintroduction of one of the world's rarest mammals might be feasible at Wind Cave National Park.
The Park contained decent acreages of black-tailed dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) – a key ingredient for this prairie dog carnivore – but the acreage was not as large as some ferret reintroduction sites that had been tried in the past. However, the Park did have good densities of prairie dogs, was not prone to sylvatic plague outbreaks like other areas, and Park personnel were keenly interested in playing a role in conserving ferrets in the wild. That combination proved critical in gaining the support within both agencies to start the conversations and processes for an endangered species reintroduction.
Ferret reintroductions in South Dakota on Forest Service National Grasslands and some Indian Reservations had already had considerable success, but as ferret recovery efforts began looking at smaller prairie dog complexes, there were concerns whether the prairie dog acreage in the Park might be too small to sustain a ferret population. However, a Wind Cave ferret reintroduction could help inform that very concept of using smaller prairie dog complexes to assist with ferret recovery while also providing important outreach capabilities to tell the story of the ferret's role in the ecosystem. In that regard, the Park and its high visitation rate and proximity to prairie dog colonies near the visitor's center, offered unique opportunities. Park biologists working with interpretative staff developed materials for a ferret kiosk center and a nighttime ferret program that offered Park visitors a chance to experience the prairies at night. While the night tours offered a chance to see a wild ferret, actual sightings have been rare, but that has not stopped visitors from filling the rosters to experience a prairie landscape rarely seen.
South Dakota has been fortunate to have had five other ferret reintroductions at various locations prior to the attempt at Wind Cave so the idea wasn't foreign to the involved publics. Those previous ferret reintroductions would also prove important to the Wind Cave reintroduction from a biological standpoint because they represented a potential source of wild ferrets. Since most ferret reintroductions occurred in the fall of the year (when captive reared ferret kits become suitable for wild releases), a source of wild ferrets offered increased flexibility to deliver ferrets to the Park and thereby take advantage of windows of opportunity that happen on short notice.
As the biology and sociology of a ferret reintroduction became reality, it became feasible to move some wild ferrets from an existing ferret population on Forest Service lands called Conata Basin. That iconic ferret reintroduction had begun in 1996 and was so successful by year 2000 that ferret kits were being translocated from that site to compliment reintroductions in other areas. Since Conata Basin was within a couple hours driving time to the Park it became the logical site to contribute wild born ferrets to the Park. During the nights of July 2 and 3, 2007, biologists from the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and volunteers captured eight wild ferrets for release at the Park on July fourth.
Later that summer, 25 more ferret kits from Conata Basin along with captive ferrets from the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center were released at the Park. Today, there is a stable population of ferrets thanks to agencies working together to bring ferrets back to a place where they had been absent for decades.
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