Black-footed Ferrets are Back Home on Colorado’s Northern Prairie
For Immediate Release
September 4, 2014
Yesterday, a crowd in Colorado witnessed history as the black-footed ferret, an endangered species, was released back into its native habitat at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area (Soapstone), approximately 25 miles north of Ft. Collins. Soapstone is an extraordinary property with over 28 square miles of wide open vistas, nearly pristine grasslands, miles of trails, and, most importantly for the survival of black-footed ferrets, an abundance of the species’ primary food source: prairie dogs.
Twice declared extinct, the black-footed ferret has proved resilient throughout its struggle for survival. Between 1985 and 1987, 24 black-footed ferrets were captured in an effort to save the species. Six of these animals died soon after from canine distemper. It is from the surviving 18 ferrets that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and Wyoming Game and Fish Department began a successful captive breeding program that continues to this day.
Since 1991, state and federal agencies, in cooperation with Native American tribes, private landowners, non-profit organizations, and the North American zoo community have reintroduced thousands of black-footed ferrets into the wild. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have expanded to eight states and three countries.
Including yesterday’s release at Soapstone, there are now 22 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites. Black-footed ferrets have been released in Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, Canada and Mexico. To date, there have been approximately 3,500 ferrets released in the wild.
Current numbers in the wild are encouraging, but more reintroduction sites are needed to recover the species. Today, approximately 500 individuals live in the wild. Each year, 150-220 black-footed ferrets are preconditioned and reintroduced into the wild from the captive breeding population. Additionally, a number of wild born ferrets may be translocated from self-sustaining reintroduction sites to other sites in order to bolster their populations.
Ferrets have returned to state, federal, tribal and private lands. The biggest obstacle to ferret recovery today is lack of suitable reintroduction sites, which makes yesterday’s reintroduction all the more special.
Fort Collins Mayor, Karen Weitkunat, who spoke at the event, was optimistic. "It is the natural habitat where they started," she said. "Because of the population of prairie dogs, we believe they will succeed."
The introduction was made possible by a law, HB 14-1267, which was signed earlier in the year by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, authorizing municipalities to enter into safe harbor agreements (SHA) with the Service. In exchange for actions that contribute to the recovery of listed species on non-Federal lands, participating property owners receive formal assurances from the Service that if they fulfill the conditions of the SHA, the Service will not require any additional or different management activities by the participants without their consent.
Other Colorado cities have expressed interest in SHAs with the Service, but cities and counties must have at least 1,500 acres of un-fragmented land to be eligible. The Soapstone property, which features more than 48,000 acres, is unusual. Of the 40% of the remaining shortgrass prairie in Colorado, much of it is degraded and fragmented due to pressures by neighboring cities, towns, and farms. For entities that meet the requirements, however, they will have a willing partner in the Service.
"Ferret recovery is a pretty simple process,” said Pete Gober, black-footed ferret recovery coordinator for the Service. “You put ferrets with prairie dogs. You manage to keep disease off the landscape. And you deal with boundary control so that you don't have prairie dogs wandering off and becoming a nuisance," Gober said. "If you're committed to that kind of management, we will work with anyone to put ferrets out and have success.”
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