Biologist Travis Livieri Dreams Big For Black-Footed Ferrets

As the endangered black-footed ferret fights back from extinction, biologist Travis Livieri reflects on where conservation efforts are at and looks ahead to exciting days.

“It’s one of those years when I’ve had a tough time putting my finger on what’s going on in Conata Basin [South Dakota]. That aspect is very frustrating,” said biologist Travis Livieri. He’s talking about the population of wild black-footed ferrets in the area.

Livieri is executive director of Prairie Wildlife Research, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving prairie wildlife, especially the endangered black-footed ferret (BFF).

What’s Going On With Black-Footed Ferrets
In a year when headlines about black-footed ferrets touted growing populations in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, a legal success in Kansas to prevent prairie dog poisoning at a black-footed ferret site, and black-footed ferrets breeding in Saskatchewan, among others, a lot has happened with black-footed ferrets in 2010.

Livieri said what’s happening in Canada is exciting with successful reintroductions and wild black-footed ferret breeding success; however, a low-level of sylvatic plague was discovered in Saskatchewan this year. Sylvatic plague is deadly to both black-footed ferrets and their food source, the prairie dog. Fortunately, plague was detected before it flared up, and Canadian biologists have already dusted to kill fleas, which carry plague.

Regarding the BFF rescue efforts, “Things are moving forward. It’s been a good year in captive-breeding.” Livieri said that, overall, things are progressing.

BFFs are in eight U.S. states, Saskatchewan, Canada and northern Mexico. The states that currently have wild black-footed ferret populations are Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Arizona and New Mexico. The most recent state to acquire black-footed ferrets was New Mexico.

Reintroductions continued in some of the existing areas in 2010 whereas sites like Shirley Basin, Wyoming have sufficient BFF numbers and no longer need to release animals. Livieri has hopes that in the future four more states will be home to wild populations of black-footed ferrets. He believes black-footed ferrets should be there because evidence shows that wild populations previously existed in these states and the states have prairie dog populations, which are a necessary food source for the BFFs. Those four states are North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

It takes a lot of time and effort to get new states to join the black-footed ferret recovery effort. The first requirement is that prairie dogs must be available and reasonably protected to provide a food source. Then the “politics” of prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets must be overcome. The politics involve the fear that prairie dogs might harm agricultural operations in some way or inhibit other activities. Livieri said contacts are needed with area biologists, politicians and people in relevant organizations to start the process.

February 2011 will mark three years that wild black-footed ferrets have been in Kansas. Despite all the controversy surrounding whether they should be there, Livieri said a reporter from the area said that life hasn’t changed since the black-footed ferrets arrived. Livieri hopes that more and more people will realize that, “Having black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs is not the end of the world.”

Where Do Black-Footed Ferrets Come From?
Every year, about 200 captive-bred black-footed ferrets are available for reintroduction to the wild. They’re born in either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, which accounts for 60 percent, or they come from one of five zoos with programs that breed black-footed ferrets.

For a black-footed ferret site to receive any of these captive-born black-footed ferrets, local program leaders must submit a request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After reviewing information on all locations and all requests, biologists make decisions on black-footed ferret placements to achieve greatest success. Recently, the presence of sylvatic plague at one site scheduled to receive some black-footed ferrets caused the ferrets to be released at a safer location.

In addition to reintroducing captive-bred ferrets, the black-footed ferret recovery program also relocates some of the wild-born black-footed ferrets. The Conata Basin site is the biggest contributor in this regard, even providing black-footed ferrets to sites in other states.

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