Helping Save the Endangered Black-Footed Ferret

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Published on October 17th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nature Conservancy’s Karla Suckling and Conservancy volunteer Bill Allen are traveling to western South Dakota to help save one of the most endangered mammals in North America — the black-footed ferret. Karla and Bill will spend four nights looking for ferrets to help save and will document their adventures here.

 


Final Day! Day 5:  The Ferret Neighborhood
Friday, October 21, 2011
By Bill Allen

Cattle grazing in the Conata Basin taken from the entrance to the Double Bar 7 ranch

It’s our last night catching ferrets and we see several. But they’re all ferrets caught before – the black hair dye Travis has painted on their throats tells us immediately when they pop out of their burrows to look at us that they’ve had their shots. They’re fun to watch. We also get to watch the swift fox we’ve seen every night.

While we’re watching a very active and entertaining black-footed ferret, I notice the eyeshine of another creature at the very edge of the beam cast by our spotlight. It’s not a fox and it’s not a ferret – it’s a badger!

The badger seems to flow snake-like over the ground, pausing to stick its nose down prairie dog burrows and only infrequently raising its head to look at us. Its reflecting eyes don’t bounce and bound above the grass like the fox flushing mice. The badger crawls. My guess is it sniffs for the dogs then digs down to the terrified rodents when it finds them. A ferret instead runs down the dogs’ burrows – then bites them in the throat as they sleep.

Biologists tell us that two species can’t do the same thing in the same place and easily co-exist – they are competing for a single resource. Badgers and ferrets both hunt prairie dogs. Are their hunting methods different enough that they get different dogs? Do the ferrets get the alert dogs that hear and escape a badger digging down from above? I’m told badgers eat whatever they can catch; ferrets eat prairie dogs almost exclusively. Perhaps that lessens their competition and allows them to co-exist – excepting, of course, when a badger catches a ferret.

It’s 4 AM and now my mind is racing. I want to understand who gets to eat what and why. Ultimately, every animal on the prairie eats grass; grass, after all, is only a prairie dog away from a ferret’s belly. Grass is the resource that makes it possible for the Conata Basin to be a home for so many kinds of animals.

My night-time drives have convinced me that it’s a rich and varied resource. At night, I can’t see to the horizon; instead my attention is focused on the ground near the truck so I’ve been watching grass as well as ferrets. Sometimes the grass is as tall as the truck’s front fenders, other times it’s short like a lawn; it can be yellow, brown or even red. It can be absent – I was surprised once to discover that our truck was surrounded by sprawling prickly pear cactus.

It’s a valuable resource. Much of Conata Basin is part of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, administered by the U.S. Forest Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s public land intended for multiple uses including cattle grazing, and nearby ranches like the Badlands and Double Bar 7 ranches operated by the Conservancy have grazing allotments in the basin.

The Conservancy purchased its first ranch in the Conata Basin four years ago, but has been raising cattle in the American West for more than 20 years. Balancing ranching economics with conservation is not new ground for the Conservancy, and grazing methods used by the Conservancy have demonstrated that it’s possible for wildlife and cattle to share this grassland resource. That’s vitally important in the Conata Basin where some of the largest black-tailed prairie dog towns on public lands are making possible a successful restoration of black-footed ferrets. This ferret neighborhood has prairie dogs, swift fox, even badgers – and includes cattle, too.

I can’t thank Travis Livieri from Prairie Wildlife Research and Doug Albertson and Bob Paulson from The Nature Conservancy enough for showing me the ferrets and their grassland home.

(Image: Cattle grazing in the Conata Basin taken from the entrance to the Double Bar 7 ranch. Image source: Bill Allen).


Day 5:  Where’s Kevin Costner When You Need Him?
Friday, October 21, 2011
By Karla Suckling

I’ve got a great script idea: Dances with Ferrets. Okay, this idea came to me during the wee hours of the morning, but at the time it sounded really good. Then again, a lot of things sound good after being awake through the night– Ramen Noodles, sleep, a black-footed ferret Halloween costume for my cat (this one still sounds good, actually)…

The tickle at the back of my throat from Wednesday turned into a full-fledged head cold overnight. Black-footed ferrets have physiology that is much closer to humans than one might think. Cold and flu viruses can be transmitted from people to ferrets, so I had to be very careful about using hand sanitizer and covering my mouth if I needed to handle any traps or ferrets. We agreed that I would defer any ferret handling to Bill and Libby – just to be safe.

Through the night, we spotted three ferrets. All had already been marked with hair dye on their throats and side from previous nights. Our burrow dancing female kit from the previous night put on another spunky show for us, chasing her shadow, darting around prairie dog burrows and popping up on her hind legs for us. She let us get close enough that we could take video – what a treat!

We spotted her a second time in close proximity to a badger ducking into another prairie dog burrow. Libby and I discussed what might happen if the two crossed paths – Libby was excited about the possibility of capturing an interaction in the wild. But right or wrong, I knew that I would be out of the truck in a flash trying to save that ferret! Fortunately, the badger and ferret went their separate ways and the Conata Basin was peaceful for another night.

It was our last night out spotlighting the endangered black-footed ferret with Prairie Wildlife Research. I am partly relieved that I can relinquish my current nocturnal lifestyle and saddened that our week is already over! It’s been a hard week’s work, and I want to give a sincere thank you to Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research, and Bob Paulson and Doug Albertson of the Conservancy’s Western Dakotas program, for giving us such a warm welcome and a great experience! Tonight, I shall sleep with little black-footed ferrets dancing through my head.

(Video source: Libby Foster).


Day 4:  Ferret Neighbors
Wednesday, October 20, 2011
By Bill Allen

Spotlighting for ferrets at Conata Basin

When we’re looking for ferrets, we see other animals, too. But it’s hard to see in the dark, and Karla, Libby and I have had to learn how to tell ferrets apart from other animals at night, even when we can see very little.

Often the only thing we can see is an animal’s eyeshine – the reflection of our spotlight by a night-active creature’s tapetum. At home, I see the brightly reflective tapetum of my cat whenever she looks at me if I’m seated by a lamp in an otherwise darkened room. When a ferret looks at our spotlight, we see its tapetum, too – a pair of tiny luminescent green dots, seemingly glowing in the dark.

But many animals have reflective eyes. Badgers can be out on the prairie at night; like ferrets, they hunt prairie dogs but badgers are too big to run down a dog’s burrow so they simply dig their way down to the startled rodents. Imagine sleeping in your bed at night and having an immense predator come crashing through your ceiling to eat you. I have some sympathy for prairie dogs.

We have yet to see badgers but we’ve seen their diggings – they’re here. I’m told their eyeshine is distinctive. Badgers are low, squat creatures and their eyes are further apart than ferrets’. Ferrets also pop up and down from their burrow when we find them. When we see ferrets, we see two tiny green dots so close together they seem almost connected, bobbing up and down in one place. Because badgers hunt differently and have wider heads, my hunch is we’d see something very different if we saw a badger. I hope we see one soon.

Every night, we’ve seen shining eyes that bounce and bound, moving rapidly across the prairie at night. When we pan our spotlight to see more, we’re rewarded with a look at a swift fox, a lovely small canine that sleeps in its burrow during the day and hunts on the prairie at night. Swift fox are active soon after sunset – we see them much earlier than we’d expect to see ferrets – and we’ve seen them as late as sunrise. If we see one well, we can see its distinctive bushy fox tail tipped with black. While they avoid the truck, they’re clearly not disturbed by our presence: I’ve watched swift fox squat and scent mark or jump in the grass to flush mice, one of their primary foods. They seem to be constantly on-the-go.

Conservationists worry about swift fox. Swift fox were once abundant across the Great Plains but now occupy only about 40% of their original range in the United States. They suffered from predator control directed at other species (such as wolves on the plains, in the early 1900s) and need intact grasslands to thrive. The Conata Basin is a good place for them. I’ve read that a swift fox typically hunts over an area from 3 to 13 square miles. It’s likely that we’re seeing the same animal every night. I wonder if we’ll see it again tonight.

We saw ferrets last night but didn’t catch them – their big black hair dye splotches told us they were animals already examined by Travis. They clearly were not harmed by their clinic visit: one animal even seemed to play with its shadow created by the spotlight. Travis tells us that ferrets that are very active above ground often are kits. The adults have learned to keep below ground where predators such as owls can’t catch them. I hope the kits we’ve caught elude the owls. When we see tiny green eyes that stay above a burrow, we’ll know they most likely belong to a ferret born this year.

Young ferret with black hair dye on throat

(Top Image: The team’s spotlighting truck at sunrise. Here: A young ferret reveals black hair dye on its throat. Image Source: Bill Allen).


Day 4: Mr. Peek-a-Boo… Where Are You?
Thursday, October 20, 2011
By Karla Suckling

Black footed-ferret

In 2009, I had my first experience inoculating black-footed ferrets in the Conata Basin. That was when I met a memorable ferret I dubbed Mr. Peek-a-boo. I had a hard time getting the trigger to set on one of the traps and one ferret eluded me four times as I did my rounds in “Ruby” the big red truck with a spotlight mounted on top. Each time I’d see his glowing green eyes peeking out from the top of the trap and yet he hadn’t triggered the foot pedal, so he could escape back down into the prairie dog burrow as I approached. I reset the trap, carefully placed it and on that fifth try I finally had him! He was a handsome fellow and I’ve often thought about whether he’s still out here somewhere, if he met a nice female ferret (or more than one!) and how many kits he might have sired over the last couple years.

We spotlighted five black-footed ferrets early this morning. Using our binoculars, we identified two from a distance, and due to the hair dye that they were painted with during their check-ups in previous nights, I knew that we had already caught them. A female kit that we trapped early Wednesday morning gave us a delightful show of dancing around her burrow – we realized that she was pouncing on her shadow that was cast form our spotlight!

We didn’t trap any new black-footed ferrets, but it was great to see that our friends from the previous nights were doing well after their vaccinations. It may have been a slowish night, but I’m still amazed at how much ferret activity we are witnessing!

(Image: Black footed-ferret. Image source: USFWS).


Day 3:  A Visit to the Ferret Clinic
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
By Bill Allen

At 3 AM, I take a break during our second night of ferret spotlighting to visit Travis Livieri, the Executive Director of Prairie Wildlife Research, in the mobile ferret clinic where we deliver the animals we’ve captured for their “check-up.” I want to better understand why we’re catching ferrets.

The clinic is a tiny trailer – there’s barely enough space for two people to stand between the counters where Travis has arranged data sheets, medical supplies, and a small scale. Opposite the narrow door I squeeze through to enter is the ferret “examining table” where Travis is inspecting a prostrate animal deeply asleep under anesthesia. A two-way radio crackles with conversations from the teams out in the field gathering ferrets. I can hear the dull hum of the portable generator outside that powers our lights and heats the trailer.

Travis is pulling ticks off the ferret with tweezers and placing them in a vial filled with preservative; later they’ll be identified as to species and checked for diseases they could be transmitting to ferrets.

Travis next administers a series of shots: penicillin to ward off any infections, canine distemper vaccine, and a vaccine for sylvatic plague. If this is a ferret’s second visit to the clinic, the last two shots are boosters; otherwise the ferret gets a shot that will be followed by the boosters if it’s re-captured. All ferrets get a microchip (identical to the microchips that are placed in dogs or cats) when first caught, so it’s easy for Travis to scan an animal and discover if it’s been to the trailer before.

Travis measures and weighs the ferret. This one’s a female: 700 grams and 40 cm from nose to anus (a standard for measuring mammals); males are slightly larger. The last step in the exam is painting a swatch of hair color on the animal’s side so it can be easily recognized in the field this season and not brought back to the trailer after its second visit. Travis likes Clairol Natural Black #122 best. I wonder if Clairol would like a ferret endorsement.

The unconscious ferret is placed in a plastic “pet taxi” and the team who captured it are called on the radio to come get it and bring it back to its burrow (ferrets are territorial). Because Travis might have several ferrets waiting for their exam and because the traps outside need to be checked every 30 minutes, the teams don’t wait for their ferret to be processed. The little animal recovers quickly once off anesthesia – I’m startled when it lunges and chatters at me from behind the taxi’s cage door. Travis turns the container around so the ferret won’t continue to threaten me. These are not the ferrets popular as pets.

I ask Travis if he’s optimistic about ferrets. These are animals once thought to be extinct. In 1981, ferrets were “rediscovered” in Wyoming and a mere 18 animals saved the species through a captive breeding program. There are enough ferrets now to put them back in the wild, but sylvatic plague and canine distemper threaten their survival. It’s essential that the ferrets we capture get their shots. Can the disease problem be solved?

Travis thinks it can. New tools have been developed in the last few years. The vaccines are better. And an oral vaccine for plague is being developed that will make it possible to protect prairie dogs (too numerous to vaccinate) from plague – the animals will eat the drug distributed as food pellets in prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs might not be endangered now but they are what endangered ferrets eat. If plague decimates the dogs, there can be no ferrets.

Travis knows the challenges to ferrets perhaps better than anyone. He’s been catching and inoculating ferrets since the mid-90s, when the ferret reintroduction to Conata Basin began. He now travels with his clinic trailer to all the ferret reintroduction sites across North America, from northern Mexico to southern Canada.

He laughs when I tell him he’s “the ferret gypsy.”

 


Day 3:  Silly Ferret, Tricks Are for Kits!
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
By Karla Suckling

We lucked out with another night of perfect black-footed ferret spotlighting weather – clear skies, crisp temperatures and a moonlit prairie with dozens of shooting stars. We were very excited to capture some of the young ferrets, known as kits. Many haven’t received vaccinations before, so we know we’re doing great work out here in the Conata Basin!

At 1:00 a.m. we had today’s first sighting. An hour later we went to check on the trap – but no ferret. Then, we realized that we were the ones being watched! Our tricky ferret had popped up in an adjacent burrow.

At 4:30 a.m. – exactly the same time as the previous night – we had our first catch. Then, we ran a ferret marathon – 5 ferrets spotlighted, 4 trapped, 3 taken in for their check-up and 1 released immediately after trapping – we had re-caught our wily gal from the previous night! [see Day 2 below]. She didn’t need to get a check-up, so we let her go right away.

After she hopped back into her burrow, she popped back out and gave us a long gaze. We encouraged her to go scrounge up some prairie dog dinner. Prairie dogs make up more than 90% of a ferret’s diet here, so a healthy prairie dog colony is vital. Check out this video we captured of a prairie dog popping up from his burrow.

We wrapped up our spotlighting at 7:30 a.m. and decided to grab a slice of ranch life in Conata Basin at the Badlands Ranch. The Conservancy’s Western Dakotas Program is working with ranchers who graze their cattle on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, running our herd with neighbor’s cattle in shared grazing allotments.

Using a lighter-than-traditional grazing approach, the Conservancy ensures the health of the grass and provides habitat for prairie dogs and the black-footed ferret. We can have both prairie dog habitat and healthy grasslands for cattle!

This project balances the economic needs of adjacent ranchers with the protection of the prairie dogs and the black-footed ferret – both are primary conservation targets at the ranch, and indeed across the Great Plains. It’s all about teamwork and partnerships in the basin!  We operate the Double Bar Seven brand and own over 6,000 acres of ranchland and utilize 27,000 acres of  U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments in our cattle operation.

Today the cattle were rounded-up and shipped out on semi trailers with the help of staff, neighbors and friends. I guess you could say… we found the beef!

Stay tuned for Bill’s update on what happens when a black-footed ferret gets its check-up!

(Video source: Libby Foster).


Day 2: It’s 10 PM – Do You Know Where Your Ferret Is?
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
By Bill Allen

Karla and I, and Libby Foster, a videographer who has joined us, are trying to find the road to the ferrets.

Karla and Libby found the road earlier today. But now it is night, almost 10 PM, and the Conata Basin seems impenetrable. The map display on Karla’s phone is useless – it shows a single line, the gravel road we’re on, surrounded by emptiness. Where the ferrets should be, the display reads “Data not available.”

Then off to the left we spot a sign announcing “Black Footed Ferret Reintroduction Area” at the start of the “road” – two tire tracks through the grass – that will take us to Travis Livieri from Prairie Wildlife Research. Travis will tell us which section of the dark basin is ours to find ferrets. We are one of six vehicles Travis is coordinating tonight.

He’s given us a good area: about 600 acres of prairie dog burrows that support at least two “families” of ferrets – there are new kits born this year in this location. There are about ten prairie dogs to an acre and a typical ferret eats a prairie dog every three days. It’s good for ferrets that prairie dogs are prolific, but sylvatic plague has eliminated many of the dogs ferrets need (and it can kill ferrets, too). It is so cold tonight (in the mid-30s) that I don’t have to worry about the fleas that transmit the disease.

We search for ferrets, peering into the night as far as the truck’s headlights and the bright spotlight attached to its roof allow. The track has disappeared. We are driving everywhere, through the grass and past prairie dog burrow mounds. The dogs are asleep underground. The ferrets are out, traveling from mound to mound, looking for dinner. Our hope is that our light will catch the reflected green shine of a ferret’s eyes when a curious animal emerging from a burrow looks back at our lumbering vehicle.

We search for hours, enduring the jarring bumps of off-road travel and resisting the need to sleep. Midnight to 4 AM is when ferrets are most active. At 2:30 AM we finally see the distinctive shine of a ferret’s eyes. It watches us as we slowly drive up to its burrow. Karla gets out of the truck and the ferret ducks underground. We set the live trap in the burrow’s entrance, mark the location with a reflective stake so we can easily find it again, and note its GPS location. We’ll return in 30 minutes to see if we’ve caught a ferret.

When we return the trap is still empty. We leave it set and return yet again – this time we see the ferret watching us from an adjacent hole – prairie dog burrows often connect underground. We set another trap.

By 4:30 AM, our efforts are rewarded. A frustrated ferret sits in the trap and chatters at us when we approach. Karla attaches a section of black plastic pipe to the trap’s door, and the ferret quickly runs into this safe, dark spot when the door is opened. We close the opening to the pipe, then transport the sequestered ferret back to Travis who is busy at his trailer tending to the animals brought to him throughout the night. I hope to learn more about how Travis is protecting ferrets against plague and canine distemper during our week here.

It’s nearly dawn by the time our ferret is ready to be brought back to her burrow (we know now it’s a she – and she is one of those kits born this year). She chatters at us again when we release her and thanks us for our work with a blast of musky ferret smell. Ferrets, after all, are Mustelids, the mammal family that includes skunks (although ferret musk is much milder).

By 8 AM, I’m back at the ranch house and eager to sleep. I’ve become nocturnal, like a ferret.

 


Day 2: Welcome to Ferretpalooza
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
By Karla Suckling

When I was born, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct. Fortunately, a small colony was found in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. That means this year marks the 30th anniversary of the rediscovery of the black-footed ferret. And what better way to celebrate than observing black-footed ferrets in the wild!

After several hours of searching for our first ferret, my team spotlighted one at exactly 2:30 a.m. She was a wily one, not afraid of us as we approached her burrow. It would be another two hours, however, until she finally triggered the foot pedal that would safely enclose her in our trap.

We let out hoots of delight when we saw the ferret’s emerald green glimmering eyes peering out at us!

We then transported her back to the vaccination trailer, which is run by Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research. A few minutes later we discovered we had caught another young female – it was Ferretpalooza at 4:30 a.m.!

After the black-footed ferrets had their check-ups, we returned them to their burrows just as the sun was coming up over the Badlands in an impressive display of pinks and purples. As our wily gal ran off into the sunrise, she chattered, barked and gave us a parting whiff of her musky scent.

We’re heading back out tonight to spotlight more ferrets and search the landscape for other nocturnal prairie critters. We’ll also get a taste of ranch life with the crew from the Western Dakotas Program. Stay tuned for more Ferretpalooza!

(Video source: Libby Foster).


Day 1: City Slickers by Day… Ferret Fanatics by Night!
Monday, October 17, 2011
By Karla Suckling

I have a little bundle of sage wrapped in twine sitting on my desk back in Minneapolis. I bought it at a roadside stand near Wounded Knee in 2009 – the last time I was out in Conata Basin, South Dakota to help inoculate black-footed ferrets. It smells like sage, sand and sunshine – all in one little bundle.

Now I find myself surrounded by that scent, wind whipping in every direction.

There are a lot of great views in the world, but the view from the Conservancy’s Double Bar Seven Ranch is at the top of my list! We’re cradled in Badlands of South Dakota and it’s a place that vibrates with energy and mysticism. This is a land filled with history and heartache, hard work and astonishing tales.

Badlands National Park overlooking Conata Basin, South Dakota

We are going to be cogs in a large machine out here working with Prairie Wildlife Research to inoculate black-footed ferrets from the deadly sylvatic plague. Before my first time spotlighting black-footed ferrets in Conata Basin, I had been to the basin twice before – once pre-plague and once post-plague.

In May 2009, I was looking forward to driving down Conata Basin Road to show my significant other the vast prairie dog town and all the little heads popping out barking at each other to warn of our approach. Instead, this once thriving area was desolate. The plague had arrived. When I heard about the inoculations happening for black-footed ferrets in the area, I asked if I could be a part of that process.

Here I am two years later joining that fight again to save our ferret friends with volunteer, Bill Allen.

We’ve got to go absorb all the sunshine we can today, because tonight – we go nocturnal! Tune-in tomorrow to read about our first night out in the basin spotlighting and collecting ferrets so they can get their check-ups!

 


Helping Save the Black-Footed Ferret
Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Nature Conservancy’s Karla Suckling and Conservancy volunteer Bill Allen are traveling more than 500 miles from Minneapolis to western South Dakota to help save one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

Known as the masked bandit of the prairie due to the black stripe that runs across their face and their nocturnal hunting habits, the estimated 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild today are at risk without our help.

Karla and Bill are helping Prairie Wildlife Research capture ferrets on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and other landowners in Conata Basin, a 142,000-acre landscape of mixed grass prairie near Badlands National Park.

The area is home to about 200 ferrets – 20 percent of the entire wild population – and ferrets that are captured here each fall are vaccinated for canine distemper and dusted for fleas that carry sylvatic plague (both are lethal to ferrets) before being released.

The Conservancy is helping preserve ferret habitat by sharing grazing lands with neighboring ranchers, finding ways to manage the land so both people and wildlife can prosper.

Karla and Bill will spend four consecutive nights looking for ferrets to help save. Before they go to bed sometime after sunrise each day, they will share their story with you.

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Comments: Helping Save the Endangered Black-Footed Ferret

  •  Comment from Art Norton

    I am in awe – you guys are great. I agree, southwestern South Dakota is remarkably, indescribably beautiful. thanks for the important and good work you are doing.

  •  Comment from Jana Pastika

    Nice piece Karla…you put me there and I’m inspired. Good work too!

  •  Comment from Jocelyn Hyers

    Great work you are doing! Cannot wait for more updates!

    Wish I could be doing that type of work as well .. but, alas I am still looking for a biology research job!

  •  Comment from Meredith Cornett

    Charlotte and I had a lot of fun watching the videos!

  •  Comment from Lorna Gleason

    Karla, Thank you for sharing your experiences during your week in South Dakota. Great descriptions, photos and video. It is a very special place with very special animals.

    Lorna

  •  Comment from joe

    How can the rest of us help to save the ferrets

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