April 2, 2020
Chamois Andersen

On National Ferret Day, April 2nd, Defenders of Wildlife celebrates the black-footed ferret – the only ferret native to North America – and the success we’ve had in recovering this endangered species! 

Black-footed ferrets
Kimberly Fraser/USDA

I often meet people who are surprised to hear we have wild ferrets in North America. They are more familiar with the domestic animal. But unlike pet ferrets, the black-footed ferret is in dire need of recovery with only about 350 in the wild. That’s why it’s one of Defenders of Wildlife’s top priority species. And thanks to our generous members and supporters, and a lot of collaboration among other nonprofits and government agencies, together we are bringing back the wild ferret.

North America’s western grasslands once held an abundance of wildlife, from thundering bison herds to vast prairie dog colonies and untold numbers of grassland birds. But today grasslands are the most threatened, least protected habitat on Earth. With black-footed ferrets teetering on the brink of extinction, healthy grassland ecosystems are essential to their survival. 

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Conata Basin on Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota
Image Credit
Jonathan Proctor/Defenders of Wildlife
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Female black-tailed prairie dog tending to her young
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Defenders of Wildlife
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Black-footed ferret, a rare site during the day as these animals are nocturnal
Image Credit
Defenders of Wildlife
Conata Basin on Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota

When talking to people about the importance of biodiversity, I like to compare it to a large carpet: When you begin to pull at one loose thread, the whole carpet begins to unravel. The same is true for our prairie grasslands. If you wipe out prairie dogs—a keystone species that a host of wildlife species rely on, including the black-footed ferret—the whole system begins to unravel. The ferret’s main food source is prairie dogs, and ferrets live in prairie dog burrows, making prairie dog towns essential to their survival.

Fortunately, there are places where we’ve been successful at protecting and restoring prairie dog towns to bring back the ferret. One model recovery site is Conata Basin in western South Dakota. This basin includes parts of Buffalo Gap National Grassland and Badlands National Park. Thanks to a collaborative effort among federal agencies, nonprofits and landowners, the black-footed ferret is once again thriving on these prairie grasslands. Conata Basin and Badlands National Park have approximately 120 ferrets living on more than 13,500 acres of active prairie dog colonies. 

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Field representatives with Defenders and HSUS apply Delta dust to prairie dog burrows to protect against plague
Image Credit
Defenders of Wildlife
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Field representative Chamois Andersen translocating a prairie dog
Image Credit
Defenders of Wildlife
Field representatives with Defenders and HSUS apply Delta dust to prairie dog burrows to protect against plague (left) and field representative Chamois Andersen translocating a prairie dog (right).

As a field representative with Defenders of Wildlife’s Rockies and Plains office, I have the unique opportunity each summer to work on the ground at Conata Basin. Much of this work involves building up the prairie dog habitat so we can maintain the healthy population of ferrets there. The work is hard, with long, hot days in a fairly remote location, but it is worth it when I see so many species thriving and knowing I am contributing to protecting the native wildlife at Conata Basin. 

An intact ecosystem is a wonderful thing to witness. At the ferret site, under a bright blue sky, for as far as the eye can see, mixed grass prairie unfolds until it meets the Badlands escarpments. Bison roam nearby, foraging on the succulent grasses, ferruginous hawks fly over the sandstone bluffs, and prairie dogs chirp away all day long as we work. 

Conata Basin landscape, Badlands National Park
Shaina Niehans/NPS

But the scene at Conata Basin was not always so healthy and vibrant. Since ferrets were first reintroduced here in 1994, there were many setbacks with conservation work before enough prairie dog acres to support the current healthy population of black-footed ferrets were protected and restored. Then, in 2008, sylvatic plague—a flea-borne disease—wiped out two thirds of the prairie dog and ferret populations. It took thousands of dollars, countless hours of hard on-the-ground labor, and a highly coordinated partnership to bring them back. 

Black-Footed Ferret
USFWS

For many years, Defenders has assisted the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and Prairie Wildlife Research to conduct ferret surveys each year. We have also worked with the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States for the past few years to restore the prairie dog habitat at Conata Basin by trapping and translocating prairie dogs from adjacent ranching lands where they would have otherwise been poisoned. This effort helps to minimize conflicts with prairie dogs on those buffer areas, while at the same time restoring prairie dog colonies in the core recovery site established for ferrets. 

At Conata Basin, efforts to prevent or lessen the effects of plague are paying off. But each summer we have to ensure prairie dogs and ferrets stay protected. This involves preventing plague by applying an insecticide which kills the fleas that spread the plague throughout the prairie dog colonies. This also involves trapping, vaccinating, and releasing ferrets during the annual population survey at Conata Basin. And finally, experiments in vaccinating prairie dogs using a pellet bait they ingest also continue.

Thanks to these herculean collaborative efforts, Conata Basin is a model site in ferret recovery, hosting the largest black-footed ferret population in the world!  Happy National Ferret Day!

Author(s)

Chamois Andersen

Chamois Andersen

Senior Representative, Rockies and Plains Program
Chamois Andersen is responsible for advancing the Defenders' conservation programs for the American bison and endangered black-footed ferret in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.
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