A black-footed ferret checks out its surroundings. Photo by Ryan Moehring/USFWS
One of the most meaningful and symbolic reintroduction efforts in the history of endangered species conservation occurred July 26 when the elusive and highly endangered black-footed ferret returned home to Meeteetse, Wyoming, where it was rediscovered 35 years ago.
“Bringing the black-footed ferret home to Meeteetse is an extraordinary achievement. [It is] a source of pride not only for the citizens of Wyoming but for conservationists everywhere,” Service Director Dan Ashe said at the release event.
The black-footed ferret was once a familiar sight on the prairies across 12 Western states, as wells as Canada and Mexico. By the 1950s however, habitat loss and disease decimated ferret numbers so severely that the world assumed that the ferret was extinct. In 1964, a small, dwindling population was discovered in Mellette County, South Dakota, and shortly after, the black-footed ferret was designated as endangered under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act in 1967. But it was too late. When the last ferret from the South Dakota population died in captivity in 1979, the world once again thought that the black-footed ferret was extinct.
“I remember newspaper headlines announcing, ‘Black-footed Ferret Extinct; Gone from the Planet,’ and how sad that was,” recalls Kimberly Fraser, who has been with the Service’s Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center as a volunteer and outreach specialist for the past six years. It seemed as if only a miracle could bring the species back.
In 1981, a well-known story nothing short of miraculous turned the situation around. One summer night at the Hogg family ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming, Shep, the family dog, scuffled with an unidentified long, slender mammal. The next morning, the Hoggs took the carcass to the town’s taxidermist where they discovered that the creature was none other than the supposedly extinct black-footed ferret. The area was sustaining the planet’s final, dangerously tiny population of black-footed ferrets.
The world’s last 18 black-footed ferrets were caught and placed in a captive-breeding program. Over the course of the next 35 years, federal, state and local partners joined forces to enable the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret throughout the West. There are now hundreds of wild black-footed ferrets at 28 reintroduction sites in eight Western states, Mexico and Canada. And now, one of those reintroduction sites is at the very place where the last known wild ferrets were found and captured.
Should I stay or should I go? Photo by Ryan Moehring/USFWS
The Endangered Species Act provides a phenomenal structure for this kind of cooperation, setting high standards for conservation, while simultaneously allowing flexibility to suit the needs of local communities. For instance, the designation for an experimental population, such as the one in Meeteetse, protects landowners from any harm they might accidentally cause to a black-footed ferret. Safe harbor agreements, another example, allow landowners to voluntarily conserve critical habitat with assurance that the government won't further restrict land use in the future, creating a mutually beneficial agreement for both interested landowners and the black-footed ferret. Partnerships with zoos and captive-breeding centers around the nation are expanding research capacity, and the state natural resources departments play a crucial role in reintroduction.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service could not have accomplished this alone. We need all of our partners in the recovery effort,” says Fraser.
Indeed, it is a story of a committed team drawn together by a national conservation framework to a common purpose: to reestablish the black-footed ferret as more than a shadow, a ghost on the prairie, but as an essential part of a rich and dynamic prairie ecosystem that both wildlife and humans call home.
By Lynnea Shuck, intern, Headquarters