Defenders Magazine

Spring 2019

Volume 94, Issue 3

Feature

Photo credit: © Michael Forsberg/National Geographic Image Collection

A harvest moon hangs over the prairie as a coyote calls to his pack in the distance. “I wonder if it caught a pronghorn,” I say to Dana Nelson, a Wyoming state wildlife biologist. We’ve been seeing pronghorn eyes shine in our spotlight all night on the grasslands of Shirley Basin where, as a field representative for Defenders of Wildlife, I am helping with the state’s annual survey of the endangered black-footed ferret population. “I spot one,” I whisper. “See the eyes?” I hold my binoculars steady, slowly scanning where it goes. The long-bodied animal darts in and out of the prairie dog burrow, where it lives. I swivel the handle on my high-powered spotlight attached to the truck window. The light shines about 600 yards, where I pick up another pair of emerald eyes. “We’ve got two over there on the rise,” says Nelson. “I wonder if they’re siblings. It looks like they’re playing tag.” Black-footed ferrets appear to be doing fairly well in Shirley Basin. This is mostly because the prairie dog population, which ferrets need to survive, is robust, with colonies covering tens of thousands of acres. It is one of 30 sites in 11 U.S. states, one Mexican state and one Canadian province where the ferrets have been reintroduced. The backdrop to this recovery story is the Great Plains—400 million acres stretching from Canada to Mexico that once had an abundance of wildlife unmatched anywhere else in North America, with wolves, elk, bison, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, grassland birds, swift foxes, pronghorn and more. Today much of this vast region is fenced for cattle grazing, covered in crops or developed for uses that include energy and mineral extraction. Yet it still holds incredible beauty and biodiversity in a place where prairie grasses roll on for miles before meeting a giant canvas of blue sky at the horizon, and animals depend on the land and each other for survival. As a conservationist working in the field for more than two decades in a variety of environments from mountains to marine ecosystems, nowhere have I observed the interdependence between wildlife and the land like on the plains. This synergy is the reason Defenders has spent decades attempting to protect and restore black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs to their historical habitat. That the black-footed ferret survives at all is no small miracle. Thought extinct in the 1970s—after once numbering in the tens of thousands—this sleek, cream-colored creature smaller than a housecat is the only ferret native to North America. When a rancher’s dog in Meeteetse, Wyoming, deposited one on his owner’s doorstep in 1981, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went looking and discovered a remnant population, enough to launch a captive-breeding program in hopes of saving the species. It’s been a recovery fraught with setbacks. Today—with some 4,500 captive-bred black-footed ferrets released in prairie dog colonies across North America since 1991—the total ferret population still only stands at about 350, most at only a few sites, including Shirley Basin.

Articles

© Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research/NMFS Permit 15569
To recover orcas we need to help salmon
© Frans Lanting/National geographic Image Collection
Seismic testing threatens species off the Atlantic Coast and on Alaska’s coastal plain
Photo credit:  © Chip Carroon
It takes much more than cuteness to survive in the wild, where every day is a challenge for these imperiled marine mammals.