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Black-footed Ferrets return to Kansas.

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On December 31, 1957, the last known live black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) in the State of Kansas was seen near the town of Studley. Nearly 50 years later, on December 18, 2007, ferrets returned to Kansas. The reintroduction marked the beginning of an experimental effort that we hope will allow ferrets to make Kansas prairies their home again.

The story began in October 2005, when a handful of ranchers in Logan County approached the Fish and Wildlife Service to offer their ranchlands for ferret recovery. Our initial excitement at this proposal was tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, ferrets require prairie dogs (Cynomys sp.) for survival, and many people have tried diligently over the last century to eliminate prairie dogs. In fact, a 1901 Kansas law authorizes townships to forcibly require prairie dog eradication, with or without the landowner's consent. Some counties, including Logan, have assumed this authority on a county-wide basis.

We conducted a habitat assessment on our cooperators' prairie dog complexes and found they contain very high-quality habitat for black-footed ferrets. It is a much smaller area than traditional ferret release sites in northern or western states, which typically comprise tens of thousands of acres of prairie dogs on federal or tribal lands. However, many of those sites have been hit by sylvatic plague, an introduced disease that is fatal to both prairie dogs and ferrets. One big advantage of the Kansas site was the absence of plague in resident mammals. Another key ingredient was the opportunity to forge a recovery relationship based entirely on privately owned land, including land owned by The Nature Conservancy.

As expected, our reintroduction plan was not met with widespread acceptance in the local community. Many people didn't want anything that would result in areas of uncontrolled prairie dogs. There were also fears of what an endangered species might mean to the local area.

We addressed one concern by using an experimental recovery permit to conduct this work, with the Service assuming liability for any ferrets accidentally killed. The prairie dog maintenance issue is more difficult, but part of the plan provides a mix of agency and private money to assist with prairie dog control for landowners surrounding ferret release sites. As one of our partners pointed out, "It's a sad fact that if you want to maintain prairie dogs, you have to be willing to kill some." We and our partners are willing to kill some prairie dogs for the greater good of maintaining a core complex adequate to support ferrets.

We finally got word in December 2007 that a small number of ferrets were still available for release in Kansas if we could make the arrangements in time. After a whirlwind of activity and contacts, a van carrying 24 captive-bred black-footed ferrets left northeast Colorado for Kansas, arriving on December 18. The animals had been reared at three different U.S. breeding facilities and one in Canada, and had been "finished" at outdoor pre-conditioning pens at the Service's National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Wellington, Colorado, where they learned to hunt prairie dogs on their own.

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The first ferret released seemed reluctant to accept the burrow chosen for it, but after a brief investigation of the surface it finally disappeared underground. We knew we had chosen a good location when two agitated prairie dogs popped out of that same hole and raced off between onlookers' feet to find a safer refuge. I suppose it was their opinion we had just ruined the neighborhood.

We conducted nighttime surveys in March 2008, yielding proof that some of our released animals were alive and well, and providing hope that kits might be produced. A survey in August confirmed our best hopes: four different litters were located containing at least nine wild-born kits. We released almost 40 new ferrets in October 2008 to help jump-start the population.

After five years, we'll make an assessment to determine if the experiment seems headed in the right direction. By that time, we hope that ferrets are still persisting in reasonable numbers and reproducing successfully. If they do not do well in Logan County, any remaining animals can be captured for relocation to a better site.

The key to success is the prairie dog, without which the ferret will fail. If it becomes impossible to maintain sufficient acreages of prey, we will have to abandon the reintroduction and remove any remaining ferrets. In this event, Kansas will not only lose the chance to help recover an extremely rare animal but will have significantly reduced its prairie biodiversity. Scientists have verified over the years that myriad plants and animals occur in higher densities and numbers in a prairie dog colony than on similar habitats in the absence of prairie dogs. The micro-ecosystem created within a prairie dog colony is incredibly complex and diverse, allowing creatures like burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) and swift foxes (Vulpes velox) to thrive.

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Kansas has the opportunity to demonstrate concern for its own natural heritage and play a small part in bringing one our nation's most endangered mammals back from the brink of extinction. The Service is proud to partner with the landowners who had the foresight to take the first step in this process.

Dan Mulhern, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service's Kansas Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at 785-539-3474, ext. 109.
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Author:Mulhern, Dan
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1U4KS
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Words:900
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