Black-footed ferret's return from brink of extinction puts ranchers on edge

January 20, 1991|By James Coates | James Coates,Chicago Tribune

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- It was, as they say at the White House, a "photo opportunity." No questions were allowed, but camera shutters clicked like a tree full of love-struck cicadas while the stars preened.

Thus did 11 black-footed ferrets, members of what five years ago was North America's most endangered mammal species, last week enter an animal-kingdom version of boot camp at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, a period of intensive training in how to kill and survive in the bloody war to come.

Next fall, the first ferrets to graduate from this final phase of the government's captive-breeding program will start returning to the wild, resuming the fight with prairie dogs, predators and humanity that they almost lost last time around, said Galen Buterbaugh, regional director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

One part of humanity has already started fighting. The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation in November adopted a resolution demanding that the agency rethink its plans to release the ferrets in the state because their presence would hinder agriculture.

Five years ago only 18 black-footed ferrets were left on earth, all living around Meeteetse, Wyo. Last week there were 185, and they could be found in Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Virginia. By the time breeding season ends in late April, federal experts say they think they'll have 300 to 500 ferrets, enough to risk a return to the wild even in the face of objections from Wyoming ranchers.

First found in the Great Plains in 1851, the animals ranged from southern Canada to Texas until cattle ranchers began eradicating prairie dogs, the sole food for the fierce and voracious ferrets.

By 1974, the black-footed ferret was believed extinct; but in 1981, when a rancher's dog near Meeteetse caught one, the search for more ferrets became one of the United States' more celebrated animal sagas.

Search teams combed the Wyoming countryside for nearly three years before finding a colony of 129 ferrets in August 1984. Federal wildlife officials announced the agency was keeping the endangered population under close surveillance.

Then the bad news started.

In 1985, canine distemper hit the Meeteetse ferrets and killed most of them. The wildlife service reacted by initiating the captive-breeding program in which it set out to bring in all survivors from the wild and breed them in captivity. The goal was to increase the number of ferrets and return the species to its natural habitat.

The first six animals captured, however, died of distemper. Bill Morris, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, confessed that scientists had made a mistake and mixed animals with distemper with ones who didn't have it, allowing them to be exposed. He added that the outlook for the species' survival was "not good."

In the next several months search teams were able to catch only 18 ferrets, and officials finally announced that these were the last animals left anywhere. Breeding efforts began in earnest.

A recovery facility was built at remote Sybille, Wyo. In 1988, a few kits, as baby ferrets are called, were taken to backup centers in Front Royal, Va., and Omaha, Neb. to guard against disease wiping out any one cluster. From the beginning of the program, access to all three places has been strictly regulated for fear of disease.

The last-ditch breeding program has worked so well, Mr. Buterbaugh said, that the satellite colony was opened last week at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. Other colonies are scheduled soon for zoos in Phoenix, Ariz., and Louisville, Ky.

But when the first creatures are returned to the wild next fall, he said, "Then the going is going to get real tough once again."

Wildlife experts warn, for example, that they expect heavy losses once the animals return to nature because they will face many of the same predators -- horned owls, hawks, eagles, coyotes, badgers and cougars -- that led to their near extinction.

Serious questions also remain about whether ferrets raised in the relative tranquillity of a zoo will have the ability to survive on their own. In the wild, adult ferrets teach their young to enter the pitch-black burrows built by the prairie dogs and to overpower their prey in extremely violent fights with tooth and claw.

Paul Mountville, marketing and development director of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, said the ferrets would be trained to fight and to kill animals for food.

"In nature their sole source of food is prairie dogs that they hunt and kill in their burrows," Mr. Mountville explained. "So here we'll start them with something small, like maybe mice or hamsters or gerbils, and work them up to prairie dogs."

Early opposition to the project comes from the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, which represents ranchers, who say they will feel the heavy hand of federal regulators if the ferret is reintroduced in theirstate.

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