Colorado releases more endangered ferrets into prairie dog holes and hopes for the best

Restoring stable black-footed ferret communities on the Eastern Plains has been a goal since they came back from extinction in the 1980s. Sometimes critters are reluctant to make a change.

Michael Booth
The Colorado Sun
A U.S. Parks and Wildlife officer releases a captive-bred black-footed ferret into a prairie dog burrow on Wednesday, Nov. 17, at May Ranch in Lamar. Black-footed ferrets were assumed to be extinct until 1981 when a dog discovered one in Wyoming. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

AMAR — Somewhere between the comforts of a plastic tote outfitted with clean, shredded paper and a bloody quarter of a prairie dog for snacks, and the yawning dark hole he was being tipped into as hawks circled above, North America’s rarest mammal had the genetic weight of the world on its furry shoulders.

Black-footed ferret No. 10,166 clung desperately to the inside of a black PVC tube. The tawny kit appeared reluctant to dive into a lonely prairie dog hole five hours’ drive from the breeding center near the Wyoming border and take on the responsibility of restoring a species thought extinct until 1981.

It chattered like a psychotic dolphin, alternately retreating and lunging at the heavy leather gloves of the handler. Elsewhere on the unplowed shortgrass prairies of sprawling May Ranch, 14 other kits were about to go down other holes.

Colorado has spent eight years tipping 500 ferrets into the abodes of surprised prairie dogs. Biologists still can’t tell how many of the shy, nocturnal creatures have reproduced. Between the plague, relentless development and roving coyotes, they won’t call black-footed ferrets officially reestablished until No. 10,166 and its half-siblings have a lot more babies.

State and federal biologists are so eager to throw more genetic material at the ferret puzzle that they cloned one. Born in December, and now revered around the world as Elizabeth Ann.

She’s not breeding yet. They’re letting Elizabeth Ann sort out some personal stuff at a compound at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center northeast of Wellington. That’s the same place No. 10,166 and a few dozen other kits got live prairie dogs tossed inside their walls for some practice. Same place the kits were handed the travel-size snacks of prairie dog parts to cushion their long drive down to Lamar.

The kit poised above the hole near a creek on the May Ranch was marked as the 10,166th black-footed ferret nurtured to life since biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners became matchmakers for the mustelid family in the 1980s. Ferrets are a key balance in North American prairie life. They keep prairie dog populations manageable — with vampire-length cuspids, yes, but still. It’s important.

The prairie dogs, when they’re not dying of plague, help keep soil healthy, and they reluctantly provide homes for burrowing owls. When burrowing owls don’t want prairie dogs to repossess their homes, they make a sound that imitates a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes and owls keep the mice from getting uppity. Circle of life and all that.

Scientists had assumed wild ferrets were extinct since the 1950s. Those ferrets that weird guy at your college led around on a leash are domestic ferrets. They are, paradoxically, imported. Not the same at all.

Then a Wyoming dog dropped a dead but fascinating package on its owner’s doorstep. Turned out to be a black-footed ferret. The dog’s name was Shep, because of course it was.

Biologists fanned out and captured a colony of about 15 wild ferrets. Only seven kept breeding, and so the genetic stock of No. 10,166 and every other before him are . . . well . . . the polite word is “undifferentiated.”

Clinging to his car carrier, the genes of No. 10,166 could use a little more protection before diving into his late-afternoon hunt for survival. The biologists visiting Lamar this week think they found some.

Hiking across the Lamar fields with ferret carriers in hand, Colorado biologists were excited to see little turquoise poops around the prairie dog holes. They’ve been dropping blue-green plague vaccine pellets down the holes, with no idea if they were getting eaten. This week, the rainbow feces proved their recipe was becoming a local favorite.

With all the trouble, all the federal-state-private-nonprofit funding, all the science, all the prairie dog snacks, a guest at the May Ranch watched No. 10,166 contemplating his fate and asked how much the chattering kit might be worth. Price tag: $5,000 to $10,000, was the quick answer.

Whenever cost comes up, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and its partners like the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife are quick to mention another number: 130. That’s the number of plant, animal and insect species that depend on a healthy, competitive Ferret v. Prairied Dog Endless Death Match.

Prairie dogs eat 90% plants. Black-footed ferrets eat 90% prairie dogs.

A black-footed ferret looks out from a prairie dog burrow after its release. Ferrets are released in autumn months to simulate when kits usually leave their mothers. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

So the guests have to ask, as the ferret carriers are poised ominously over the prairie dog holes, is it a fair fight?

Colorado ferret wrangler Tina Jackson thinks for a moment. Adult ferrets and prairie dogs are the same size, she notes, so that seems a little fair. Also, the prairie dogs take advantage of having the day shift. When they come across one of their holes where they sniff out a sleeping, nocturnal ferret, they bury it. The ferrets eventually dig out, but doesn’t that seem kind of fair?

Grunts emanate from Pete Gober of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, standing nearby. It’s the grunt of a man who has raised ferrets to be their fully realized selves, and maybe thinks the prairie dogs need to suck it up, buttercup.

“Fair!” Gober blurts. “What’s fair in wildlife?”

Weary of the daytime shyness and existential angst of No. 10,166, state biologist Jonathan Reitz pulled out a pry bar in the form of an old deer antler. You can’t take the “danger” out of endangered species. But you can take the ferret out of the cage.

Reitz pried the black PVC tube over the lip of the car carrier and suddenly the ferret was splaying all fours at the end of the tube in order not to drop, like a first-time parachutist in an airplane doorway. A few more chatters, and down it went, disappearing into the hole. Reitz tossed the ferret’s bloody, chewed-over car snack down the hole as a little housewarming gift.

And suddenly a bunch of nearby prairie dogs were texting each other “wtf just happened.”

To honor those prairie dog feelings, it would be full disclosure to mention right about here that black-footed ferrets have the largest canine-tooth to skull ratio of any living mammal. Reitz and other handlers wore masks — perhaps to protect the precious hothouse creatures from COVID-19, or perhaps to protect their noses from becoming a snack.

So now what, the biologists are asked? The state’s top scientists have just this week dumped a quarter-million dollars of research down a bunch of humble prairie dog holes from Pueblo to the Wyoming border. Black-footed ferrets spend at least 23 hours a day underground.

Will they at least call home on Thanksgiving?

“Who knows,” Jackson laughs. “We might not see them for three months.”

Each ferret has a chip, like the kind you can put under your dog’s neck fur. But you have to find them first — the hand-held chip readers only work within a couple of feet. The May family hosting the ferrets will look out for signs of living or deceased kits, and the biologists will come back in the spring hoping to discover breeding pairs. Or at the very least, survival.

“Fingers crossed these guys do well over the winter,” Jackson said.

A female ferret needs 30 to 40 acres of territory all to herself to find enough prairie dogs to survive. They eat a whole one every couple of days. Overall, Colorado needs 50,000 acres of healthy prairie dog territory to support the 250 wild ferrets it wants to see as an established population.

Neither home developers nor most farmers want prairie dogs in Colorado — they dig holes that break ankles and ruin machinery, nosh on valuable crops and draw coyotes. The May Ranch is a dryland operation, doesn’t irrigate or till, so the prairie dogs are fine with them. Dallas May was excited to open the gates for ferrets he thinks should have been here all along.

“For us it’s a different philosophy, that we want the prairie dogs, we want coyotes. We want rattlesnakes. We want black-footed ferrets. We want what is there to be there. We want what isn’t there, that’s supposed to be there, to come in,” he said.

The May Ranch has seen no rain for three months, and dust from pickup trucks can roll like a storm cloud. But as an early golden hour crept across the short grass and toward the scattered cottonwoods on a mid-November day, the 15,000 acres took on the glow of promise.

Ferret No. 10,169 decided to enjoy the sunset above ground rather than explore the underground colony. The VIP buses headed back to the May barn, and the biologists settled into an optimism that their latest effort might actually take hold. Some wildlife groups estimate that despite all the hard work, only 300 black-footed ferrets survive in the wild — world wide.

The key is that when you’re starting from “extinct,” any sign of life after that is gravy.

Maybe the rolling natural wonders of the Arkansas River corridor would please the new homeowners. Maybe the peanut butter-flavored rainbow pellets would hold off the plague.

Maybe the badger that lived in the extra-large hole they’d just walked past would ignore its ferret cousins for a while, instead of eating them.

“This is what we do in the southeast corner,” one wildlife officer said after tilting ferret No. 10,168 into a new life just as the sun dropped below the horizon. “Lower people’s expectations, and then jump right over them.”

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