© John Ruth

Northern Plains

Defenders in Action in Northern Plains

What Defenders is Doing

Plains Bison

Over the last decade, Defenders has contributed significantly to bison conservation, helping to bring back America’s national mammal. While bison are no longer threatened by extinction, substantial work remains to fully restore the species to its ecological and cultural role throughout the Great Plains. Defenders is working with its tribal and public land partners to establish conservation herds within historic bison range across the Northern Plains. Our collaborations with tribes have resulted in sustaining several cultural herds in Colorado, South Dakota and Montana. Defenders is also paving the way for Yellowstone bison –  first wild herd recovered – to be available for conservation, with animals that can be translocated from the park to supplement other herds. Connective landscapes are key to bison recovery. Defenders is engaged in land and natural resource planning efforts with state federal agencies, as well as advocating for better consideration of bison as a species of concern on forest lands. Our partnerships with parks and natural resource agencies as well as with private landowners have also made a difference with connecting landscapes so bison can access suitable forage for grazing.

Black-footed ferret

When it comes to the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, Defenders is working with state and federal partners and private landowners to save the species from extinction. Defenders’ goal is to increase the number of recovery sites on public and private lands as well as the number of breeding adults in the wild, once released. Our work spans the Great Plains and includes several reintroduction sites as well as efforts to protect and enhance prairie dog habitat for future ferret recovery.

Ferret populations can vary considerably over a short period of time. The key is ample prairie dog habitat. Today, approximately 300 individuals live in the wild. While current numbers are encouraging, more reintroduction sites are needed to recover the species. Each year, 150-220 black-footed ferrets are preconditioned and reintroduced into the wild from the captive breeding population, which began in 1991 led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Defenders is involved with management efforts such as helping with plague mitigation and expanding prairie dog colonies to provide adequate habitat for successful ferret reintroduction. When prairie dog habitat is managed properly and with sylvatic plaque disease control, ferret populations can quickly increase; the species has a high reproductive rate.

Defenders is also dedicated to reintroducing black-footed ferrets to the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming, one of the last remaining vestiges of the plains, with ideal prairie dog habitat and grasslands supporting a diversity of wildlife. Our efforts include partnering with the Forest Service, working in stakeholder processes for prairie dog management, and conducting habitat restoration and native reseeding projects with local landowners. Our goal is two-fold: To better realize the shared value of a healthy ecosystem for all users of the Thunder Basin National Grassland and to manage ample prairie dog habitat for the future release of black-footed ferrets, returning this endangered species to its prairie home.

Success Stories

Plains bison

Defenders’ goal to restore Plains bison to the landscape is paying dividends to the overall conservation of this species that once numbered in the millions across the Great Plains. Our efforts include partnering with national parks to help increase America’s wild bison herds to conservation status, 1,000 animals or more with historic bison range.

Our government relations work includes minimizing the number of animals that go to slaughter each year in Montana after leaving the refuge of Yellowstone National Park. We are working on a cooperative government program that would allow these animals to go into quarantine to be declared brucellosis-disease free, thus available to be translocated to tribal and public lands across the plains. Supplementing herds with these genetically pure bison is one of the objectives of our strategic bison recovery efforts. Defenders is also working with tribes in Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming to increase cultural herds on tribal lands. We provide resources and assist with on-the-ground efforts for bison fencing as well as secure adjacent lands and grazing allotments to expand grassland habitat. The partnerships Defenders has fostered with the tribes of the Great Plains has really made a difference for restoring bison to their historic range and for the tremendous cultural value these tribes hold for their buffalo.

2017 – Defenders worked with the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to purchase an adjacent property for expanding the bison reserve on tribal land. With these additional acres as well as others identified for future expansion, the tribe will have the opportunity to increase the population of the herd. 

2017 – Defenders joined forces with Badlands National Park on a project to provide access to additional acres of the grassland for bison to graze. This project was in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Foundation. The effort also included a land swap with a neighboring ranch, which provided an additional 80,000 additional acres for the bison to roam. Before bison could be released into this new area, we first needed to install fencing around the park boundary to keep bison out of adjacent ranches and from intermingling with cattle. Defenders helped to provide the significant funding needed to match the federal funding for the fence’s construction.

2017 – For the past five years, Defenders’ field staff have worked in the Yellowstone gateway communities of Gardiner and Hebgen basins to provide technical assistance and financial incentives to all landowners in free-roaming bison zones. This effort includes building fences around gardens, landscaping and other assets that are vulnerable to damage by wild bison.

2016/2017 – Defenders’ volunteers conducted a field day removing old fencing, wire and debris from a section of the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area near Fort Collins, Colo. This project provided access to an additional 700 acres, with nearly 2,000 acres on the reserve for the bison to graze. The Laramie Foothills Herd is at 30 animals, and now with more room to roam thanks to the help of our volunteers.

2015 – Defenders secured the funding to reintroduce bison to their historic range on the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. Our organization also provided the resources for the bison fencing in the reserve.

2013 – Defenders worked to negotiate an agreement (management, testing and disease) with Montana Parks and Wildlife for 34 bison at Fort Peck to be relocated to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. This was the second round of genetically pure wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to be restored to tribal lands on the Northern Plains.

2012 – Defenders led the effort for 61 genetically pure bison to be relocated from a quarantine facility outside of Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana.

Black-footed ferret and prairie dog recovery and coexistence

2017 – For the past several years, Defenders has helped reintroduce prairie dogs on American Prairie Reserve in northeastern Montana, along with the Prairie Dog Coalition of The Humane Society of the United States. The goal is to reintroduce the endangered black-footed ferret to these lands, once there are ample prairie dog acres (a minimum of 1,500 acres is key for ferret recovery). In 2017, we completed more than 600 acres of prairie dog habitat. Invented by former Defenders’ staffer, Steve Forrest, “Assisted Dispersal,” is a technique used in fieldwork that involves installing artificial burrows and creating grain or feed trails to encourage prairie dogs to establish a new colony or town and expand their range. This labor-intensive work is a four-part process of mowing, reducing shrubs, creating burrows for the dogs to occupy, and dusting prairie dog burrows for fleas that transmit the plague.  This habitat enhancement project has really made a difference in expanding prairie dog habitat on the American Prairie Reserve, and is a good example of the collaborative fieldwork by Defenders for endangered species recovery.

Successful release of ferrets

For more than two decades, Defenders has been involved in ferret reintroduction efforts in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Ferrets have also been released in New Mexico as well as Canada and Mexico. Thanks to a combination of donations and grants, Defenders has provided more than $125k in funding to recover this endangered species to the Great Plains.  [ Sites: 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 16, 17, 19, 23, 24, 26, 27]

What we do:

  • provide funding for protecting from plague
  • assist with ferret releases and follow-up surveys
  • provide nonlethal prairie dog tools and supporting management to address neighboring landowner concerns
  • conduct pre-surveys of habitat prior to ferret releases
  • provide expert comments in support of projects
  • litigate to protect ferret habitat against politically motivated government proposals to poison prairie dog colonies, ferret habitat

In 2013, Defenders helped reintroduce ferrets to Fort Belknap Reservation in northcentral Montana. Defenders partnered with Fort Belknap Fish and the Wildlife and World Wildlife Fund to map the prairie dog colonies, provide dust to prevent plague, and ultimately reintroduced a total of 32 ferrets to these tribal lands. Today, the population has grown.

Since 2008, Defenders has provided funding and on-the-ground support to ranchers in Kansas for black-footed ferret recovery. This includes the Haverfield’s ranch of nearly 10,000 acres. This rancher is a good example of private landowners joining the effort to recovery black-footed ferrets. In 2008, we were able to mobilize our members to help gain state support to overturn an old law on the books against prairie dogs, which led to successfully bringing back the species to the Kansas prairie. Finally, in 2013, after years of legal attacks from the county commissioners, these ranchers won their right to maintain wildlife – including prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets – on their ranches.

Ongoing ferret recovery efforts:
  • Conata Basin, South Dakota – relocate prairie dogs to start new colonies and improve ferret recovery.
  • Crow Reservation, Montana – continue ferret recovery on tribal land.
  • Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana – continue ferret recovery within tribal bison reserve.
  • Haverfield Ranch in Kansas – continue ferret recovery and provide monitoring support for 10,000-acre private ranch.
  • Laramie Foothills, Colorado – continue ferret recovery at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area.
  • Lower Brule Reservation, South Dakota – relocate prairie dogs to reestablish colonies and improve ferret recovery on tribal land.
  • Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Montana – relocate prairie dogs to reestablish colonies and reinitiate ferret recovery on tribal land.
  • Southern Plains Land Trust, Colorado – promote natural expansion of prairie dog colonies for future ferret recovery on private land trust with bison.