Black-footed ferret: Wild heart of the Great Plains
February 20, 2014
“If you are able to restore the black-footed ferret to the prairie, you can say you have restored at least a fraction of the Great Plains back to its former self,” said David Jachowski, a post-doctoral research associate in wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment who spent a decade on the effort to restore the ferrets to their natural habitat.
In March, the University of California Press will release Jachowski’s book about his experience, “Wild Again: The Struggle to Save the Black-Footed Ferret.”
The federally endangered black-footed ferret is cute enough to be the poster child for species conservation, but it requires healthy colonies of an unpopular critter to survive. This ferret species lives only in active prairie dog colonies, using prairie dog burrows for shelter and to rear its young. And more than 90 percent of the ferret’s diet is prairie dogs.
“If you don’t have large prairie dog populations, you don’t have a chance of recovering the black-footed ferret as a species,” said Jachowski. “Unfortunately, prairie dogs have long been, and still are, one of the least popular and most highly persecuted wildlife species in the Western U.S.”
“Prairie dogs live in close, complex, social communities with interconnected burrow systems that can stretch for hundreds if not thousands of acres,” he continued. “They used to be one of the most numerous mammals in North America, dwarfing the abundance of famously large herds of bison.”
“But due to poisoning, habitat alteration, and disease, prairie dogs have undergone a dramatic decline to less than 5 percent of their former range over the past 150 years,” Jachowski noted.
Research by Jachowski and his colleagues suggests that prairie dog colonies that are less than 10,000 acres in size have a poor chance of maintaining a self-sustaining black-footed ferret population.
“Unfortunately, there are less than six colonies of such size in existence right now in North America,” he said.
Saving the ferret requires reversing the trend of wiping out prairie dogs. Farmers and ranchers get rid of the colonies because prairie dogs eat pasture grasses and forage crops. So, why save prairie dogs?
“On the Great Plains, grasses dominate the landscape. And on those grasslands, patches of prairie dogs bring the prairie alive in increased plant and animal diversity,” Jachowski wrote in “Wild Again.”
“And in some of those prairie dog colonies, the presence of black-footed ferrets best symbolizes a healthy, biodiverse piece of ground — a locality complete with badgers, swift foxes, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and ferruginous hawks, some of the prototypical representatives of the prairie,” he continued.
Jachowski’s book includes interesting people, beautiful settings, and all the challenges, disappointments, hope, and tentative successes of a good novel.
His ferret adventure began with a career-choice disappointment. As an undergraduate wildlife major at the University of Montana, his conservation goal was higher up the food chain.
“I wanted to work on wolves and grizzly bears like everyone else,” he said.
Fortunately, he attended a seminar by Randy Matchett, a researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System, about conserving the black-footed ferret, one of the rarest animals in North America.
So when Jachowski graduated in 1999 and there were no grizzly bear or wolf research jobs, he emailed Matchett.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service was looking for a biologist to study prairie dogs, and that evolved into a career to save the ferrets,” said Jachowski.
Matchett, a wildlife biologist for a million-acre refuge in Montana, is a central character in the book. He is passionate about the ferret, but his job also entails managing elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, and sage grouse. Jachowski went to work for Matchett as a technician and later began to help implement a ferret captive breeding program with him.
The black-footed ferret was long thought to be extinct. The first success came in 1981 when a small population was discovered by a ranch dog in a corner of Wyoming.
“Biologists brought every one of the animals into captivity and now, over 30 years later, every animal currently in existence is from that last handful of black-footed ferrets found in Meeteetse, Wyo.,” he said.
Jachowski moved to the Fish and Wildlife Service national program to evaluate sites across the Great Plains, from Mexico to South Dakota, for introduction of the black-footed ferret. He got his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Missouri while doing his research on ferrets.
While much of the book is about his travels, part of it is on ferret biology, tracking the ferret’s activities throughout the year. The book attempts to summarize in a non-technical way all the work that has gone on.
“Like all field biologists, we shifted our lives to that of our study animals: sleeping days and working nights; eating one large meal a day; learning the feeling of a drop in barometric pressure ahead of a storm; judging the time of night by the height and phase of the moon,” Jachowski wrote about ferret monitoring.
“Most interesting is how many people in eight states have been involved and all the complexities, from the captive breeding program to reintroduction and protection,” he said.
Despite all the effort, success has been low.
“There are many factors, from the public hatred of prairie dogs to a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that is wiping out both the prairie dogs and the ferrets,” Jachowski said.
So, despite being one of the first species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the black-footed ferret remains endangered.
“The animals are constantly being released, from Saskatchewan, Canada, to Chihuahua, Mexico, and eight western states in between,” he said. “What is neat is the persistence of the effort since they were rediscovered 33 years ago. The continual need to release, vaccinate, and otherwise conserve this species from extinction makes reintroduction of gray wolves look easy.”
One of the people Jachowski writes about is a Kansas rancher who joined the effort.
“It was against state law to allow prairie dogs on your property in Kansas, but this rancher liked having them so he didn’t allow government officials to come on his land to poison the prairie dogs,” Jachowski said. “He volunteered to have black-footed ferrets introduced on his land.”
“We had been largely targeting tribal and public lands, but maybe the great hope is pieces of habitat that biologists have not been looking at,” he added.
In addition to private ranchers, a private group that has joined the effort is the American Prairie Foundation, which is trying to create an enormous 3-million acre park called the American Prairie Preserve.
“They have already restored bison and are determined to achieve the larger goal of restoring a large swath of prairie to the time when Lewis and Clark first passed through the area more than 200 years ago,” Jachowski said. “It is conservation at this scale that also gives me hope for the future of black-footed ferrets.”
Jachowski ends his book by concluding that conservation of many endangered species is dependent not so much on thinking about what use the species has in terms of its utilitarian value, such as food, clean water, or medicine, but is instead based on sentimentality.
“This ties directly into Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, that we need to extend our circle of sentiment beyond family, communities, or human kind,” he said.
“It is perhaps the most selfless act to try to preserve something when it is not in the strictest sense physically, energetically, or evolutionarily beneficial to do so,” Jachowski wrote in “Wild Again.” “We do it because something obvious or hidden deep in our psyche tells us that in the face of change it is right to keep something the way it is, return it to what it formerly was, or lift up something from the trouble it dwells in.”
In the classes he teaches at Virginia Tech, Jachowski uses the black-footed ferret as a case study on the issues that confront conservation.
Now that he is located in Virginia, Jachowski has started a project on the rarely seen Eastern spotted skunk. Only 47 confirmed sightings have been reported in Virginia, some of which date as far back as the 1800s. With support from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, he is looking for the small, shy animal along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains.
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