It’s 11:30 at night and we’re racing down a dirt road through the dark South Dakota plains. The dust kicked up leaves a 1/4-mile cloud behind us while the Milky Way sparkles above a moonless night. We’re returning to Badlands National Park and one of the largest remaining patches of native mixed-grass prairie in North America to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the black-footed ferret's rediscovery, among the rarest mammals in North America.
The sculpted mudstone ridges of the Badlands surround us as we scan parched grasslands with a high-powered spotlight that penetrates deep into the night. My guide, Brent Houston, is one of a handful of biologists who has worked over the past thirty years to help these intrepid creatures bounce back from the brink of extinction.
“Their eyes shine green against the dark so keep a close lookout near those burrows,” Brent instructs, “If they blink it’s most likely a pronghorn, but if they stare back without blinking, you know it’s a ferret.”
A flash of green close to the ground and we spot our first ferret emerging from its den to survey the night. As we move closer the cool green stare matches ours and draws us in. In an instant the trembling shadow darts into its burrow; we pause. It pokes its head up and stares at us again but we haven’t come any closer—it’s watching us watching it. After a while, perceiving no threat, the ferret begins to go about its business.
Brent tells me to quietly get out of the truck and walk towards the burrow. In a moment I am crouched 50 feet away watching this juvenile male dart through sedges and sagebrush. Occasionally he stands on his hind legs, wary of predators while undoubtedly searching for his next meal or a potential mate, the two primal motives that universally drive all living things in this world. Here was my first glimpse of a black-footed ferret in the wild.
The black-footed ferret is one of the smaller members (about 1 ½ to 2 ½ feet long) of the Mustelidae or weasel family. This ferret relies solely on expansive prairie dog colonies for survival. They live in vacant burrows and spend about 90% of their lives in these underground labyrinths, venturing into open air only for brief moments to hunt. It’s a relationship as old as the prairie itself.
“Dog Towns” once speckled the short and mixed grass prairies east of the Rocky Mountains that altogether covered an estimated 695 million acres from Saskatchewan to Mexico. The settlement and domestication of the prairie during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s has left less than 2% of native grassland habitat for prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and the multitude of wildlife that depend on it.
In 1964 a small population of ferrets was discovered on a desolate patch in Mellette County, South Dakota. The US Fish and Wildlife Service believed these were the last native ferrets left in the wild and placed them on an early version of the Endangered Species List in 1967. The colony struggled with disease while some were captured for an unsuccessful attempt at captive breeding. The last of the known wild ferrets died in 1974.
Seven years passed with no sign or indication that black-footed ferrets survived anywhere else within their historic range. When the last captive specimens died in 1979, the species was presumed to be extinct.
One bright September day in 1981 at a small ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming, a wiry blue heeler named Shep was guarding his food against theft when one little bandit got too close. With a quick snap it was killed and tossed aside. The unfortunate intruder was a black-footed ferret, and the simple act of defense set into motion one of the greatest recovery stories in wildlife history.
In the few years that followed one lone colony was discovered, precariously teetering between survival and extinction. In 1985 the colony was crashing, succumbing to sylvatic plague and canine distemper. Brent, my guide, was among the biologists who captured the last 18 wild ferrets. It is from these last ferrets that the whole of the species has been repopulated and reintroduced to several locations across their former range including Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, as well as Canada and Mexico.
The black-footed ferret is currently recovering thanks to the efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and a myriad of non-governmental organizations. The species, however, remains in an extremely fragile state, and our celebration is not without reservation.
The question of the ferret’s long-term survival still hangs in the high plains air. The wild prairie is continuously deteriorating, and prairie dog colonies are destroyed because they are believed to compete with cattle for forage and grazing lands. Evidence points to the contrary; prairie dogs actually enhance the grasslands by aerating the soil, creating places for seeds to take hold and keeping the invasion of shrubs and trees at bay.
After spending a few nights in the South Dakota prairie, one thing is apparent: biodiversity in America’s breadbasket is in peril. The native grasslands and wildlife that once flourished from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains are hanging on by a fraying thread. This struggle for life continues in fragmented patches stippled between wheat fields and cattle ranches. Until the wild prairies are allowed to regain some of their former range, the black-footed ferret will linger perpetually in danger of extinction. -TBM
Resources for further reading:
Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program (official website)
Prairie Wildlife Research – vital to the recovery efforts
US Fish and Wildlife Service – black-footed ferret species profile
Defenders of Wildlife – black-footed ferret info page
In May, Ben Donatelle was published here in the Magpie for his article on the Wilderness and Recreation Partnership, a local non-profit "working to protect singletrack and our wild primitive places."