AMAR – Somewhere between the comfort 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 plunged into as the hawks circled above, North America’s rarest mammal had the world’s genetic weight on its hairy shoulders.
Black-footed ferret # 10 166 was hanging desperately inside a black PVC tube. The little fawn seemed reluctant to dive into a lonely prairie dog hole a five-hour drive from the breeding center near the Wyoming border and take responsibility for restoring a species thought to be extinct until 1981.
He was chattering like a psychotic dolphin, running away and alternately rushing onto the trainer’s heavy leather gloves. Elsewhere in the short, untilled grass prairies of the huge May Ranch, 14 more cubs were about to come down from other holes.
Colorado spent eight years sending 500 ferrets to the homes of surprised prairie dogs. Biologists still cannot say how many shy nocturnal creatures have reproduced. Between the plague, relentless development, and stray coyotes, they won’t call the officially restored black-footed ferrets until # 10166 and his half-siblings will have many more babies.
State and federal biologists are so eager to throw more genetic material at the ferret puzzle that they have cloned one. Born in December, and now revered around the world as Elizabeth Ann.
She is not yet in breeding. They let Elizabeth Ann take care of personal matters at a complex at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, northeast of Wellington. This is the same location that No. 10,166 and a few dozen other kits had live prairie dogs thrown into their walls for training. At the same location, the kits received the prairie dog parts travel snacks to cushion their long journey to Lamar.
The kit posed over the hole near a creek on the May Ranch has been marked as the 10,166th black-footed ferret fed to life since biologists from the US 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 canines, yes, but still. It is important.
Prairie dogs, when not dying from the plague, help keep the soil healthy and they reluctantly provide homes for burrowing owls. When burrowing owls don’t want prairie dogs to take back their home, they make a sound that mimics a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes and owls keep mice from getting irritated. Circle of life and all that.
Scientists thought wild ferrets had been extinct since the 1950s. Those ferrets that weird guy from your college led on a leash are domestic ferrets. They are, paradoxically, imported. Not at all the same.
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 deployed and captured a colony of about 15 feral ferrets. Only seven have kept the breeding, and therefore the genetic stock of No. 10 166 and all the others before him is. . . good . . . the word polite is “undifferentiated”.
Clinging to its car carrier, No.10166’s genes might need a little more protection before diving into its late afternoon survival hunt. Biologists visiting Lamar this week believe they have found some.
Walking through the fields of Lamar with ferret carriers in hand, Colorado biologists were delighted to see little turquoise poo around the prairie dogs’ holes. They dropped pellets of blue-green plague vaccine into the holes, not knowing if they were eaten. This week Rainbow Feces proved their recipe is 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 May Ranch watched # 10,166 pondering his plight and asked how much the chatter kit could be worth. Price: $ 5,000 to $ 10,000, was the quick answer.
Whenever the cost increases, US 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 species of plants, animals and animals. insects that depend on a healthy, competitive ferret. v. Prairied Endless Dog Death Match.
Prairie dogs eat 90% plants. Black-footed ferrets eat 90% of prairie dogs.
So guests must be wondering, as the ferret carriers balance menacingly over the prairie dog holes, is this a fair fight?
Colorado ferret wrestler Tina Jackson thinks for a moment. Adult ferrets and prairie dogs are the same size, she notes, so that seems a bit tight. In addition, the prairie dogs benefit from the day shift. When they come across one of their holes where they smell a sleeping nocturnal ferret, they bury it. Ferrets end up digging, but doesn’t that seem fair enough?
Grunts emanate from Pete Gober of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, standing nearby. It’s the growl of a man who has bred ferrets to be fully realized, and maybe thinks prairie dogs need to suck him, buttercup.
“Fair!” Gober lets out. “What’s right about the wildlife?” “
Tired of the daytime shyness and existential angst of # 10166, state biologist Jonathan Reitz pulled out a lever shaped like old deer antlers. You cannot eliminate the “danger” of endangered species. But you can take the ferret out of the cage.
Reitz pushed the black PVC tube over the lip of the car carrier and suddenly the ferret crawled on all fours at the end of the tube so as not to fall, like a first-time skydiver in an airplane door. Some more chatter, and he climbed down, disappearing into the hole. Reitz tossed the ferret’s bloody, chewed car snack down the hole as a little housewarming gift.
And suddenly a bunch of prairie dogs nearby were texting each other ‘wtf just happened’.
To honor those prairie dog feelings, it would be full disclosure to mention here that black-footed ferrets have the greatest canine-tooth-to-skull ratio of any living mammal. Reitz and other managers wore masks – perhaps to protect the greenhouse’s precious creatures from COVID-19, or perhaps to protect their noses from the possibility of becoming a snack.
So now what, ask biologists? The state’s top scientists just dumped a quarter of a million dollars in research this week into a pile of humble Pueblo prairie dog holes on the Wyoming border. Black-footed polecats spend at least 23 hours a day underground.
Will they at least call home for Thanksgiving?
“Who knows,” Jackson laughs. “We might not see them for three months. “
Each ferret has a flea, like the one you can put under the fur of your dog’s neck. But first you need to find them – portable chip readers only work a few feet away. The May family that houses the ferrets will be looking for signs of living or dead kittens, and biologists will return in the spring in hopes of finding breeding pairs. Or at the very least, survival.
“My fingers crossed, these guys do well in the winter,” Jackson said.
A female ferret needs 30 to 40 acres of territory on her own to find enough prairie dogs to survive. They eat a whole one every two 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 real estate developers nor most farmers want prairie dogs in Colorado – they dig holes that break ankles and ruin machines, nibble on valuable crops and attract coyotes. The May Ranch is a dryland operation, does not irrigate or plow, so the prairie dogs agree with them. Dallas May was delighted to open the doors to ferrets who he said should have been there from the start.
“For us it’s a different philosophy, that we want prairie dogs, we want coyotes. We want rattlesnakes. We want black-footed polecats. We want what’s there to be there. We want what is not there, which is supposed to be there, to come in, ”he said.
The May Ranch hasn’t seen rain for three months, and dust from pickup trucks can roll around like a thunderstorm cloud. But as a golden hour crept over the short grass and toward the scattered poplars one day in mid-November, the 15,000 acres took on the glow of promise.
Ferret # 10 169 decided to enjoy the sunset above the ground rather than exploring the underground colony. The VIP buses returned to May’s barn, and biologists settled in 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, worldwide.
The key is that when you go “off,” any sign of life after that is gravy.
Perhaps the undulating natural wonders of the Arkansas River Corridor would appeal to new owners. Maybe the peanut butter flavored rainbow lozenges would hold back the plague.
Maybe the badger that lived in the extra-large hole they had just passed would ignore its ferret cousins for a while, instead of eating them.
“This is what we are doing in the southeast corner,” said a wildlife officer after rocking ferret # 10 168 into new life just as the sun was falling below the horizon. “Lower people’s expectations, then jump on them. “
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