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DENVER | The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that their 157-page Black-footed ferret Revised Recovery Plan is now available.

The Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was historically found throughout the Great Plains, mountain basins, and semi-arid grasslands of North America wherever prairie dogs occurred, according to a news release from the federal agency.

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, poisoning, and disease dramatically reduced prairie dog numbers. The ferret population declined precipitously as a result.

The federal agency's news release on the revised plan did not mention urban encroachment or the rodent's susceptibility to plague.

In 1999, however, a service paper noted, "At present, sylvatic plague is widespread throughout the western United States, except in South Dakota. It is likely no coincidence that 4 of the largest 7 remaining black-tailed prairie dog complexes are in South Dakota or that approximately 32 percent of all remaining individuals of the species are located in this state."

An estimated 2,000 acres in Butte County are listed in the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks 2005 prairie dog management plan, about 60 percent on private acres. About 3,000 acres were listed in Harding County with more than two thirds on private land.

“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.

In Colorado's Front Range area, about 3.3 million acres of historic prairie dog habitat were lost to urbanization - but no ferret regulations are considered there according to the newly revised recovery plan.

Gober said in the news release, “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.”

A recovery plan is to provide a framework for the recovery of a species so that protection 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.

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, according to the news release, 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, according to the news release.

The new plan states that recovery of Black-footed ferrets will depend upon: continued captive breeding to provide suitable animals for release into the wild; conservation of prairie dogs to sustain throughout their historical range; and management of sylvatic plague, a disease that can decimate prairie dogs, as well as ferrets.

Publication in the Federal Register was scheduled for Dec. 23, 2013. It was on line in PDF form Dec. 26.

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