[Editor's note: Karla Suckling is an executive assistant and trustee liaison for the Conservancy’s Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota chapter. Katharine Llop is a conservation assistant who also works for the Conservancy's Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota chapter.]
One of the great advantages to working for The Nature Conservancy is the ability to get hands on experience in the field – even if that isn’t your normal day job.
I’m an executive assistant and trustee liaison, but recently I was able to moonlight for the Conservancy and help save black-footed ferrets, one of the most endangered mammals in North America.
Prairie Wildlife Research organizes and leads the operation each fall to monitor and treat ferrets in Conata Basin, South Dakota, an immense and largely intact grassland just south of Badlands National Park that is also home to one of the largest populations of black-footed ferrets in the wild. The Conservancy has a strong presence in the region and our staff and supporters help Prairie Wildlife Research monitor ferrets and protect them from canine distemper, sylvatic plague and other threats.
This year, my colleague Katharine Llop, a conservation assistant who also works for the Conservancy’s Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota chapter, joined me.
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct in 1979. On September 26, 1981 a rancher’s dog near Meeteetse, Wyoming killed a black-footed ferret and brought it home, resulting in the discovery of a small number of ferrets on nearby private land. The population peaked at 129 individuals in 1984 before dropping to 58 in 1985.
Sylvatic plague (yes, the same disease that devastated Europe centuries ago) and canine distemper were decimating the population and the decision was made to capture some animals. By the late 1980’s black-footed ferrets were extinct in the wild. Only 18 individuals remained at a captive breeding center. Successful reproduction in captivity, however, ultimately produced enough young black-footed ferrets, called “kits,” for reintroduction back into the wild. Releases have occurred on federal, state, tribal and private lands and included many partners.
Last year, the Conservancy’s team captured 6 black-footed ferrets, which were given medical treatment to increase their chance of surviving before being returned to the wild. Check out this video that we put together documenting our efforts.
Plague is the most significant biological threat to black-footed ferrets today. Plague emerged in Conata Basin in 2008, and has resulted in a massive reduction in habitat and a corresponding decline in black-footed ferret populations. In 2007, Conata Basin was one of the most successful black-footed ferret sites in North America with a population of 335 animals, but in 2011 their number in the region dropped below 100 and remains on the brink today. Black-footed ferrets are listed as endangered across North America.
Currently the black-footed ferret federal recovery plan calls for 1,500 breeding adults in the wild before their status would be changed to threatened. To be removed from the endangered species list entirely, we would need 3,000 adults in the wild.
Monitoring of wild populations is essential to know how close we are to reaching those goals. Currently there are an estimated 500 adult black-footed ferrets in the wild thus we are one-third of the way to our first goal.
A Week in Heck
We spent a week by a formation named “Heck Table” spotlighting for black-footed ferrets. The first two nights the weather conditions were highly unfavorable to our efforts but we did encounter some incredible wildlife including great-horned owls, coyotes, a swift fox, skunks and badgers! During the course of our week in the field, we spotlighted one ferret for a few seconds but were not successful in capturing it.
Fortunately, another Prairie Wildlife Research volunteer had more luck and in our last few hours we received a call by radio from Amy Sobkow, a volunteer for Prairie Wildlife Research. She had caught a ferret.
She shined the light into the trap to reveal… a little creature whose fiercely adorable face caught me entirely off guard. The ferret was huddled into a ball at the bottom of the trap, looking away from us, more as though it was feeling bashful rather than afraid or upset. It may not be the most scientific term, but the best way to describe these little guys: cute. Amy ushered the ferret into a PVC pipe that we use to transfer ferrets, and then she took it to a mobile lab to be inspected and treated.
Amy then returned the ferret to the proper burrow (marked by a reflector and GPS coordinates). Slowly, and after a bit of scuffling about within its pet carrier, the ferret poked its small face out and glanced around. Then, in a burst of activity, it was out of the carrier and out of sight, safely returned to its burrow. And that was it. Our entire ferret experience for the week lasted a total of about four minutes, a testament to the elusiveness of wild animals, especially endangered ones.
Overall, we were disappointed with the low black-footed ferret numbers in the area within Conata Basin where we worked, but we learned an important lesson in research. We helped collect valuable data about what is happening with endangered black-footed ferrets. We left feeling energized about the future possibilities of success for this endangered species and hope that you will join us in supporting The Nature Conservancy and Prairie Wildlife Research in our hard work to save habitat, prevent the spread of disease, and create healthy ecosystems for both people and our animal neighbors.
[Image: A black-footed ferret is safely returned to its burrow. Image source: Katharine Llop]