Partnership key to ferret reintroduction

RBC — The recovery effort for the black-footed ferret is one of the most challenging opportunities in wildlife management and the Bureau of Land Management in northwestern Colorado is a key partner in that story.
Black-footed ferrets were once thought extinct and still are one of the most endangered animals in North America. Since 2001, a partnership that includes BLM, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released more than 200 black-footed into the wild northwest of Meeker.
Black-footed ferrets are the only ferret species native to North America. They are dependent on prairie dog towns, which provide them their food source and shelter. With a huge drop in the amount of prairie dog towns in the 20th century, ferret populations suffered. By 1974, the animal was thought to be extinct. In 1981, one last wild population was found in Wyoming, but that was nearly wiped out by disease. The last 16 ferrets were brought into captivity, and all known black-footed ferrets today are descendants of that last population.
Recovery efforts began in a number of western states. In Colorado, the agencies worked with local governments, ranchers and others potentially affected by a reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. By agreeing that the ferrets would be reintroduced as an experimental, non-essential population, the agencies ensured that the recovery effort could be conducted without adversely affecting other multiple uses of the land.
By 1998, the recovery program had begun in northwestern Colorado with the arrival of 19 ferrets. The ferrets were placed in large outdoor pens on BLM lands north of Maybell for pre-conditioning and breeding.
Pre-conditioning is a ìtrainingî program that prepares black-footed ferrets for life in the wild. Ferrets are held in large pens (70 feet by 70 feet) that are built directly over prairie dog towns so that each pen has actual burrows. Using this design, ferrets can live in as natural an environment as possible for 30 to 60 days before being released into the wild. During that time, ferrets live in the burrows and are fed live prairie dogs. Research has shown that pre-conditioned ferrets have a much higher survival rate than non pre-conditioned ferrets after release into the wild.
A breeding program was initiated in 1999 and continued until 2003. During that time, a total of 134 kits were born; 73 of those survived to be released into the wild. The first release of ferrets into the wild in Colorado took place in 2001, when 43 ferrets were released into Wolf Creek, northeast of Rangely. From 1999 to the present, a total of 239 black-footed ferrets have been released in Colorado. The first confirmation of a wild-born kit took place in October 2005.
The numbers of ferrets are still low, both in Colorado and throughout the West. But this cooperative effort is making headway, and I look forward to the day we meet our recovery goals for the black-footed ferret in northwestern Colorado.
Kent Walter has been the Field Manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office in Meeker since 2001.