Black-Footed Ferrets Take The Spotlight On Endangered Species Day

For the nonprofit organization Prairie Wildlife Research, Endangered Species Day is a chance to talk about the endangered black-footed ferret.

Prairie Wildlife Research is spreading the word about endangered black-footed ferrets. If you have never heard about black-footed ferrets, you are the people they want to reach. And if you have, Endangered Species Day is a great reminder about these cute, little mammals from the North American prairie.

Black-footed ferrets, Mustela nigripes, are the only ferrets native to North America. Their historic range included parts of 12 states (Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming) and small portions of Mexico and Canada. They were considered extinct by 1979. But on September 26, 1981, a ranch dog in Wyoming started a chain of events that led to the rediscovery of black-footed ferrets in the wild — and the battle to save the species began.

Travis Livieri, the executive director of Prairie Wildlife Research, is one of the biologists heavily involved with the effort to save black-footed ferrets. It’s a complicated task that includes captive-breeding, reintroduction, monitoring and vaccinating wild populations, and much more.  Livieri said that currently about 500 black-footed ferrets are living in the wild, which is down from about 1,000 a couple years ago. 

“We know in Conata Basin in South Dakota we’ve gone from a high of 335 animals in 2007 down to a little less than 100 now. I think my last count was 71,” Livieri said. “That gives you an indication of how swiftly plague can impact the black-footed ferret population.”

The plague he mentions is sylvatic plaque, which reached the west coast of the United States in the early 1900s and is slowly moving east. It was confirmed to be in Conata Basin, South Dakota, in mid-2008. Plague is fatal to black-footed ferrets and to prairie dogs, which are the only food source for black-footed ferrets.

A good portion of Livieri’s time is spent out in the field counting the black-footed ferret population and capturing black-footed ferrets to vaccinate them against plague. The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. National Park Service help combat plague by dusting prairie dog burrows with insecticide that kills fleas, which spread the plague.

“We really need both dusting and vaccination,” Livieri said. “When I say vaccination I mean two shots per animal. That’s always the tricky part. I have to go out and find that animal, capture it, give it a shot, let it go, come back a few weeks or a month later and try to capture it again and give it another shot. That’s where the difficulty of vaccination comes into play.”

Being out in the field adds to the cost of operating Prairie Wildlife Research. Livieri pointed out that some people think being a nonprofit means everyone is a volunteer who works for free and most things are given to them. That’s incorrect. 

“We operate just like a small business,” Livieri said. “We pay payroll taxes; we have other things to do in terms of keeping a business going. We have to pay employees.”  When the expenses of salary, travel gas, equipment, housing out in the field and everything that it takes to put a field crew out and run a small business, Livieri estimates that it takes $500 to fully vaccinate one black-footed ferret. Multiply that by the known ferret population, and the cost is in the thousands every year.

One way that Prairie Wildlife Research helps to raise funds is by offering symbolic adoption of Boots the black-footed ferret and several other endangered prairie species. It also has other products for sale. This week, it launched a limited edition black-footed ferret track to celebrate The Comeback Kid, which is a nickname for the black-footed ferret. Next week it will launch a spice created with a Fort Collins, Colorado, spice shop.

But raising funds is only part of the task of saving a species. Another important part of the task involves the public.

“What we need are people to be involved in management of their wildlife,” Livieri said. “Wildlife is owned by the people.” He said that one of the most powerful things that people can do is to get educated about what’s happening on the prairie and learn how to influence that.

“Everybody owns public lands here in the United States,” he said. “People that live in New York, California, Alaska and Florida have just as much say as to how public lands are managed as anyone else.”

Prairie dogs can be a political topic. Livieri pointed out that how prairie dogs are managed will affect black-footed ferrets and other species dependent on prairie dog colonies.

“Our goal with this is just to raise awareness,” Livieri said. “To get people to understand what it takes to recover the endangered black-footed ferret. This is one of those endangered species that we can recover. We have the tools. We have the technology. Do we have the social and political will to recover this species? I think most everybody wants to save endangered species but they don’t necessarily realize how much time, effort, money, cooperation and politics are involved in saving an endangered species like the black-footed ferret.”

Livieri said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a revised plan for recovery of black-footed ferrets. The plan was announced on April 23, 2013, and is open to public comment until July 24, 2013. Livieri plans to explain more about the project on the Prairie Wildlife Research Facebook page in June, offering some specifics on how people can comment on the black-footed ferret recovery plan.

Prairie Wildlife Research does a lot of outreach to help educate people. Besides using social media like Facebook and Twitter, it participates at events. People near the Fort Collins, Colorado, area on Endangered Species Day, May 17, 2013, can see Livieri give a lecture about what it takes to save an endangered species at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. He’s speaking at 7 p.m. in the OtterBox Digital Dome Theater, and a screening of the 50-minute documentary Return Of The Prairie Bandit follows. The presentation is free to attend, but seating is limited so pre-registration is required by calling 970-416-2705. 

Also of note is that this new museum has an exhibit featuring two live black-footed ferrets named June and Mr. Brightside. They’re in the main lobby and can’t be missed.

“If you want to come see probably the best black-footed ferret display in North America, this is the place to come see,” Livieri said. “It’s just such a cool venue. Beyond the ferrets, it’s a very interactive museum. It’s a place that if people have kids and they want to do something different, unique with them, this is the place to take them. There’s also stuff for adults to do as well. It’s just a fantastic place.”

Why are black-footed ferrets so important? Livieri said one reason is because they’re an example of how affecting one part of the ecosystem can profoundly affect another part.

“Human involvement affected prairie dogs and not intentionally that affected black-footed ferrets and brought them to the brink of extinction. That is a tremendous example of how interlinked and intertwined our environment gets.”

He also said that black-footed ferrets are a flagship species. “They are a charismatic species that’s a good representative of the prairie dog ecosystem. Everybody thinks they’re cute. Having a species like that and being able to push forward black-footed ferrets means that we’re going to be able to push forward to save prairie dogs, to save burrowing owls, swift fox, ferruginous hawks, mountain plovers and a whole host of other species that use prairie dog colonies.”

Livieri said he almost looks on the black-footed ferret recovery as a military operation, and he believes that, ultimately, we will win the war.

“Endangered Species Day is a chance to engage the public and to really get them to think about their endangered species,” Livieri said. “The emphasis being on their, because as I said people own wildlife. The public owns wildlife.”

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