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Black-footed ferrets, once thought extinct, were rediscovered 25 years ago today in northwest Wyoming by a ranch dog named Shep.

Six years later, in 1987, the small, lone colony of the masked weasels that Shep discovered had dwindled to just 18 animals. All of them were in captivity by then to preserve the species. Since then, however, captive breeding programs and re-introductions into the wild have pulled black-footed ferrets from the brink of extinction.

In the process, Conata Basin, 70 miles east of Rapid City, has become the ferret capital of North America. Ferret populations are also reproducing on the Cheyenne River and Rosebud Indian reservations.

"South Dakota is absolutely the most successful state for ferret recovery," said Mike Lockhart of Fort Collins, Colo., who is black-footed ferret recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research, a nonprofit group that works on ferret recovery, this fall is counting ferrets in Conata Basin, which is in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands bordering Badlands National Park. Livieri's count won't be complete until November or December, but he estimates there are 250 black-footed ferrets in the basin - up slightly from last year.

"As far as we know, the population is stable," Livieri said.

A fight over ferrets

But not everyone in South Dakota is wishing the ferrets a happy re-birthday today.

The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association last week voted unanimously to oppose reintroducing more black-footed ferrets into the state. "It's ludicrous for government agencies to allow prairie dogs to destroy the habitat for every species of wildlife that exists in the prairie dog towns, all in the name of 'saving' the black-footed ferret," Stockgrowers spokesman Marvin Jobgen of Scenic said in a news release after the meeting.

Ranchers such as Jobgen say prairie dogs migrating out of Conata Basin in search of grass are ruining private and public rangelands. They blame rules designed to protect the ferret's main source of food.

"The management plan for prairie dogs just went away," Pennington County Commissioner Jim Kjerstad said, prompting the commission to call for a moratorium on the black-footed ferret program.

The U.S. Forest Service began poisoning prairie dogs in buffer zones near private land last year, but ranchers said the measure was inadequate.

Earlier this month, the Forest Service began a one-year process to expand prairie-dog management - including poisoning - to all of the Buffalo Gap and Fort Pierre national grasslands in South Dakota and to Oglala National Grassland in Nebraska.

Livieri, who lives in Wall and who has researched ferrets in Conata Basin since 1995, disagrees that the program seriously affects livestock. "The biggest threat to ranchers right now is the worst drought since the dust bowl," he said.

Livieri also points out that the Conata Basin is less than 100,000 acres - less than 3 percent of the public grasslands in South Dakota. "Can't we set aside that much for an endangered species?" he asked.

That question, however, is controversial and complicated. The answer depends on science, which, in the case of ferrets, is incomplete, and on subjective values - that is, what role, if any, should the black-footed ferret play in a modern prairie ecosystem.

Once-prosperous weasels

Black-footed ferrets, or "Mustela nigripes," are related to weasels, skunks, badgers, otters and wolverines. Their range was the entire Great Plains, from northern Mexico to southern Canada. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, they evolved into carnivores with a diet almost exclusively limited to one item: prairie dog.

Black-footed ferrets even live in prairie dog burrows, and they spend 90 percent of their time underground. They are 18 to 24 inches long, and their slender bodies are perfect for slinking through narrow tunnels and surprising sleeping prairie dogs.

A single ferret can eat 100 prairie dogs a year, according to a fact sheet prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program.

Living was easy for ferrets when bison roamed the plains and prairie-dog towns stretched for miles. Ranching and farming, however, were not believed to be compatible with prairie dogs, and in the 1920s and 1930s, many colonies were eradicated or reduced and, in turn, reducing the food supply of the black-footed ferret.

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Ferrets today

On clear, dry nights over the next couple of months, Livieri will be roaming Conata Basin with a powerful spotlight, looking for the glowing, emerald-green eyes of the black-footed ferrets he has tracked for more than a decade.

He'll put transponders over holes leading to prairie-dog burrows, and the transponders will detect signals from microchips Livieri has implanted in ferrets he has already counted. He'll compare that data with a huge computer database he has developed for the Conata Basin ferret population.

Livieri expects that of about 250 ferrets in the basin, 100 will be breeding adults - probably about 67 females and 33 males. Why that ratio? "We don't know," he said. "We haven't studied them long enough.

Livieri is also monitoring about 130 ferrets northeast of Eagle Butte on Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and about on Rosebud Indian Reservation.

South Dakota's population of 420 ferrets far outstrips the closest competitor, Wyoming, which has about 139 in the Shirley Basin area.

More than 2,000 black-footed ferrets have been introduced into the wild since 1991, and Lockhart estimates there are 1,000 to 1,200 black-footed ferrets today - including about 350 still in captivity. Some of those are in a "pre-condition pen" in Conata Basin, learning to hunt prairie dogs. Livieri calls it "ferret school."

"To come from just 18 animals to what we have today is just amazing," Livieri said.

The ferret future

Lockhart also believes that the recovery of the black-footed ferret is amazing, though his optimism has dimmed in the past couple of years. "In 2004, we were talking about moving toward de-listing," he said - that is, removing ferrets from the endangered species list. The benchmark for de-listing is 1,500 breeding adults at a variety of locations throughout the West.

"We're not talking about that anymore," Lockhart said. "This has been one of the most successful recovery projects on record, but I think we're close to reversing direction. That's scary to me."

Lockhart says the total land devoted to the black-footed ferret is less than 1 percent of the nation's public grasslands. "It's a trivial amount of land," he said, but he acknowledged, "It's not trivial if you live next to it."

Still, Lockhart believes some prairie-dog habitat should be left alone to regulate itself - not only for ferrets but to benefit a host of species, including ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and swift foxes.

"It goes to the heart of biodiversity. Ferrets are an indicator species of a healthy, vibrant prairie ecosystem," Lockhart said.

The main threats to ferrets now are the intertwined effects of economics, politics and a five-year drought.

Wet years in the 1990s kept grass high in the Conata Basin, and prairie dogs remained concentrated in a relatively small area. When drought reduced grasses, the prairie dogs spread out. "Like Pennington County commissioners, the Stockgrowers are disgusted with the destruction prairie dogs have caused on federal lands and private property in and around Conata Basin," Marvin Jobgen said.

Ranchers had enlisted Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to pressure the Forest Service to amend the prairie-dog management plan, a process that will take about year.

Environmental groups also are pressuring the Forest Service. Even Jane Goodall issued a statement calling for protection of Conata Basin as "a very special place."

Livieri said he hopes the Forest Service decides the issue based on science, not politics. "Twenty-five years post-Shep, we are still asking the question, can we let these creatures exist?"

Then, he added his own prediction: "It's going to be a dog fight, pun intended."

Contact Bill Harlan at 394-8424 or bill.harlan@rapidcityjournal.com

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