Battling Back From ‘Extinction’

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Published on January 18th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

As a kid, I recall reading a story about the extinction of the black-footed ferret: gone forever.

Even at a young age, I was a dedicated enthusiast of strange and unusual animals. I still remember the deep regret I felt that I would never see this cool-looking animal hunting prairie dogs on the Great Plains.

Thirty years later, I stood on those plains, as three wild black-footed ferrets darted around my feet.

Impossible?

No. To borrow from Mark Twain’s quote, the report of the ferret’s demise was greatly exaggerated.

I recently participated in a crazy weekend road trip across the Southwest, looking for some of the world’s most unusual animals with Jon Hall, the editor of MammalWatching.com and a man on a mission to see as many of the world’s wild mammals as possible.

Sometimes, the search for vanishing animals might seem like a depressing quest: the rush to see animals before they disappear forever.

That wasn’t the case on this trip: In fact, this is probably the best time to catch a glimpse of a wild ferret in fifty years.

Let’s admit up front that conservationists love stories of doom and gloom, particularly about wildlife. Read recent reports about tiger populations, or rhino poaching, or the future of the world’s fisheries, and it’s pretty difficult to feel optimistic.

Sure, there’s always suggestions about plans and summits to discuss conservation, but when it comes to tigers and rhinos, the overall tone is one of gloomy inevitability.

As the story of the black-footed ferret shows, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Ferret Futures

Quite simply, black-footed ferrets require prairie dogs to survive: They feed on these rodents, and use their burrows to hide from larger predators. The loss of prairie dog towns across the West spelled doom for ferrets.

By the 1960’s, only one ferret population, located in South Dakota, could be confirmed. In 1974, that colony disappeared.

By 1979, no living ferrets could be found anywhere–presumably the end of the line for the creatures.

However, in 1981, a rancher’s dog in Wyoming brought home a dead ferret. That startling event led biologists to a previously undiscovered ferret population, setting off one last, desperate chance to save the species.

The story that followed often seemed hopeless.

A captive breeding program suffered setback after setback, with disease and failure ruling the day.

Still, in the end, conservationists (and ferrets) prevailed: Today, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to 18 sites in eight states, as well as Canada and Mexico.

To say their future is secure is overstatement. They’re still one of the rarest animals on earth. Their populations require a lot of monitoring and research.

They’re not extinct, though. And in some places, they’re doing quite well.

On a warm night in Arizona, Jon Hall and I visited with black-footed ferret researchers Jennifer Cordova and Trent Binford-Walsh of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Ferret Recovery Team in Seligman, Arizona.

Both Jon and I had doubts we’d be able to see ferrets in the wild, but the ferret biologists assured us that we’d have no problem spotting them on ranchlands along historic Route 66.

“You’ll see ferrets tonight, guaranteed,” said Binford-Walsh.

It didn’t take long. Five minutes, in fact.

Driving slowly along the road with spotlights, we picked up the distinctive green eye shine of black-footed ferrets.

We approached slowly on foot, only to have three curious ferrets approach within a few feet of us.

An amazing moment: A creature, one presumed gone forever, now stared into my eyes.

It’s a moment to cherish, yes, but also a moment to pull out whenever I read those doom-and-gloom predictions for other wild creatures.

Read More: If you want to read more optimistic stories of wildlife conservation, I highly recommend Hope for Animals and Their World, a book and web site by Jane Goodall. Here you’ll find dozens of stories of people who saved species from extinction, often against the longest of odds.

(Image: Black-footed ferret. Image credit: © Jon Hall, mammalwatching.com)

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Comments: Battling Back From ‘Extinction’

  •  Comment from Jon Hall

    Great post Matt – it was indeed a great evening and such a thrill to see an animal I thought I would never see in the wild. And, as you say, so nice to have good news about wildlife for once. The AZFGD are doing a great job.

  •  Comment from Hilary Cox

    I think some recognition could have been given to the many people involved in this project over the years, not just the AZFGD! Scientists are required to give references…it would be civil to do the same for these people.

  •  Comment from Dianne Collins

    Wonderful news! Our world is diminished when the endangered animals are in trouble!

  •  Comment from Zuri

    Thanks for this enlightening and encouraging story! RSS feeds and tweets are usually overloaded with the not so great and negatives within conservation. So while these things put a pep in my step to see what I can contribute to the science stories like this make me jump!

  •  Comment from Paul Vang

    Matt, looking at ferrets in Arizona is cool, but to really show your dedication you should have made a winter trip to NE Montana to check the re-introduction there.

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