Jul 22, 2016

Endangered ferrets to be returned to Meeteetse next week

After a nearly three-decade-long absence, black-footed ferrets are being reintroduced to ranch lands west of Meeteetse.

On Tuesday, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department plans to release roughly three dozen of the endangered ferrets across 3,200 acres of prairie dog colonies. The department hopes to re-establish a black-footed ferret population in the area.

The Game and Fish's Nichole Bjornlie releases a prairie dog in this file photo. The department has been studying ways to protect prairie dogs — on which black-footed ferrets rely — from plague. Photo courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish

The species was thought to have been extinct when a ferret colony was found on the Hogg family's Lazy BV Ranch in 1981. The ferrets found there were eventually captured and were used to start a successful breeding program that's boosted the species' population from a couple dozen animals back up into the hundreds.

While ferrets have been reintroduced to other areas in Wyoming and other states, Tuesday's release in Meeteetse will be a little more special.

“It is incredibly exciting for us to be putting ferrets back in a location where we found an animal we thought was extinct. It shows a dedication to conservation and the fact that we have done some excellent work here,” Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott said in a June news release. “It’s a landmark moment to return this species back to Meeteetse.”

“It’s a landmark moment to return this species back to Meeteetse,” said Scott Talbott, the Game and Fish director.

As for what makes a site a good place for black-footed ferrets, Wyoming Game and Fish Nongame Mammal Biologist Nichole Bjornlie says it really comes down to one thing: prairie dogs.

“Because an adult ferret will eat about one prairie dog every three days, an individual ferret can eat over 100 prairie dogs in a single year!” Bjornlie said in a recent Game and Fish Q&A.

At that rate, each ferret needs roughly 50 to 100 acres of prairie dog habitat, she said.

“Not only do ferrets eat almost exclusively prairie dogs (about 90% or more of their diet is prairie dogs), but they also rely on prairie dogs for their burrows, which ferrets use for shelter, safety, and a place to raise young,” Bjornlie explained.

To prepare for the release outside Meeteetse, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service biologists and field specialists applied insecticide to prairie dog burrows at the site. Their aim was to cut down on the number of fleas, which transmit the deadly sylvatic plague that can decimate prairie dog populations.

Game and Fish plans to release a total of 35 ferrets on Tuesday in the Meeteetse area.

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