Prairie dogs critical for ferret recovery, officials say

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the Arizona Game and Fish Department shows a black-footed ferret crawling out of its burrow in the Aubrey Valley near Seligman, Ariz. Federal wildlife officials have crafted a new plan to restore the highly-endangered black-footed ferret in part by re-introducing the animal to more states. (AP Photo/Arizona Game and Fish Department, George Anderson, File) Enlargephoto

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the Arizona Game and Fish Department shows a black-footed ferret crawling out of its burrow in the Aubrey Valley near Seligman, Ariz. Federal wildlife officials have crafted a new plan to restore the highly-endangered black-footed ferret in part by re-introducing the animal to more states. (AP Photo/Arizona Game and Fish Department, George Anderson, File)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is announcing the availability of the black-footed ferret Revised Recovery Plan. The black-footed ferret was historically found throughout the Great Plains, mountain basins and semi-arid grasslands of North America wherever prairie dogs occurred. The species is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The ferret’s close association with prairie dogs is an important factor in its decline. From the late 1800s to approximately the 1960s, conversion of native grasslands to cropland as well as poisoning and disease dramatically reduced prairie dog numbers. The ferret population declined as a result.

“The single, most feasible action that would benefit black-footed ferret recovery is to improve prairie dog conservation, “ said Pete Gober, Black-footed ferret recovery coordinator. “If efforts are undertaken to more proactively manage existing prairie dog habitat for ferret recovery, all other threats to the species will be substantially less difficult to address. Down listing of the black-footed ferret could be accomplished in approximately 10 years if conservation actions continue at existing reintroduction sites and if additional reintroduction sites are established.”

In an email interview with the Cortez Journal, Gober was asked if the Black-footed ferret could help control the prairie dog problem locally for farmers and the airport.

“Ferrets usually don’t have sufficient dramatic enough impacts on their prey populations to cause prey extirpation,” Gober wrote. “Ferrets might average killing one prairie dog per week. They might reduce the prairie dog population somewhat but probably not enough to impress a rancher or airport manager.”

The objective of a recovery plan is to provide a framework for the recovery of a species so that protection under the act is no longer necessary. A recovery plan includes scientific information about the species and provides criteria and actions necessary for the service to be able to remove it from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. Recovery plans do not regulate federal agencies or their partners, but recovery plans are often adopted by federal agencies as sound environmental policy.

Although ferret habitat has been dramatically reduced from historical times, a sufficient amount remains if its quality and configuration is appropriately managed. This management, for the most part, is likely to be conducted by traditional state, tribal, and federal fish and wildlife and land management agencies. Additionally, private parties, including landowners and conservation organizations, must continue to support ferret recovery. Many partners contributing to ferret recovery in many places will help minimize the risk of loss of wild populations.

Specifically, recovery of Black-footed ferrets will depend upon continued efforts of captive breeding facilities to provide suitable animals for release into the wild; conservation of prairie dog habitat adequate to sustain ferrets in several populations distributed throughout their historical range; and management of sylvatic plague, a disease that can decimate prairie dogs, as well as ferrets.

The updated Recovery Plan can be viewed at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/blackfootedferret/

Journal reporter Jim Mimiaga contributed to this report.