Of road trips, heroes, and Black-footed ferrets

Traveling the back roads near Massadona, Colorado, I looked out the car window and saw a wisp of a dream. Most experts would say I imagined that wisp on August 26, 1975. Whether imagined or real, it led to an adventure and a life-long love affair with the black-footed ferret, North America’s rarest mammal. Always a mysterious creature, secretive and rarely seen, they were not recognized as a species until 1851. Mustela nigripes.

Black-footed ferret

Photo courtesy of www.prairiewildlife.org

Most people I talk with have never heard of the black-footed ferret.  In the early 1800’s, when Lewis and Clark crossed the great grasslands of North America, the barking of prairie dogs filled the air.   Alongside the prairie dogs was another mammal – their predator, the smaller black-footed ferret. Billions of prairie dogs from Mexico to Canada have been reduced to less than 1% of their original population. The black-footed ferrets, which were never large in number, declined as the prairie dogs did, for prairie dogs are virtually their only food source.  In the 1970’s, the black-footed ferrets were feared to be extinct.

Still my husband and I stopped at Dinosaur National Monument headquarters, nearly two hours down the road. We were cautious as we entered. We knew they’d think we were having hallucinations if we told them we thought we’d seen the rare, possibly extinct, nocturnal black-footed ferret in broad daylight.  So we casually asked, “Were there ever black-footed ferrets in this area?” Not another word was needed.   Immediately, we were escorted into a back room where a ranger listened attentively to our story. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t accuse us of having hallucinations.  I suspect he was surprised we knew what a black-footed ferret was, let alone their history. “Where do you think you saw it?” he asked. “Do you have time to take me back to the area?”

The adventure began.   We traveled back to the site, got out of our cars, and walked onto the prairie. The ranger confirmed trenching around the prairie dog holes, evidence of ferrets. He took our names and address and thanked us.  Then we went our separate ways, dreaming of small masked mammals.

By February 1976, the ferrets had moved to the back of my mind.  (It’s interesting to note,  some resources state that in the late 1970s, no known black-footed ferrets lived in the wild.)  Still, a letter arrived from the United States Department of the Interior, thanking us for stopping at Dinosaur headquarters and sharing that another observation had been reported a few weeks later.  Our sightings, along with signs of trenching, provided “evidence of the presence of ferrets.” The wisp grew clearer in my mind.

It was over thirty years later, through a series of happy coincidences, that the black-footed ferret entered my life again.  I’d heard that captive-bred ferrets were being released on a ranch in western Kansas at the same time I was doing author visits in the area.  Ron Klataske, Executive Director of Audubon of Kansas, connected me with the ranchers, Larry and Bette Haverfield, who invited me to drop by after my school visit, on October 9th, 2008.  (It had been less than a year since the first ferrets were released on the ranch.) “Dropping by” meant traveling on deserted dirt roads, where no GPS had gone before.  I didn’t see another car for over half an hour. Breathing a sigh of relief, I finally arrived at the Haverfield ranch.  Larry smiled at me, leaning against his truck.  Bette invited me in for antelope stew.

The Haverfield ranch in Logan County

The Haverfield ranch in Logan County, Kansas

Bette and Larry are two of the most welcoming, gracious people I know. Larry spent the afternoon showing me around the 10,000 acre ranch, sharing his belief that rotational grazing, “buffer” areas,  and the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets would bring predators and prey into balance and be good for his cattle too.

Research sources differ, but most agree that in 1986/87 the Wyoming Game and Fish Department captured the last remaining ferrets in the wild (most sources say 14) to be added to 6 in captivity. Due to recovery programs, careful reintroduction, and heroic wildlife stewards, the total population is now thought to be around 1500, a precariously small population for any mammal, even one that is considered rare.

The Haverfield Ranch - Prairie Wildlife Stewards

Plaque from Defenders of Wildlife – Prairie Wildlife Stewards

Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species, vital for other plants and animals in the short-grass prairie, including burrowing owls, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, and golden eagles.  But in the 1900s they were poisoned until their numbers plummeted.  As the prairie dogs disappeared, so did other prairie wildlife.

After those first ferrets were released on the Haverfield ranch, Larry and Bette began their struggle.  Logan County was determined to poison prairie dog colonies on all ranch land, even on land where owners didn’t want the poison, like Larry and Bette’s, Gordon and Martha Barnhardt’s, and Maxine Blank’s.  Not only that, the prairie dogs were to be poisoned with “secondary” poison, which not only kills the prairie dogs, but kills any animal that eats them during the time they’re dying – hawks, eagles, fox, badgers…black-footed ferrets.

During the time of this struggle, a newspaper article ran this headline:  “One against hundreds.” That “one” was Larry.

I last spoke with my heroes, Larry and Bette Haverfield, in early March of this year. Their long struggle to save their wildlife habitat has, for the moment, prevailed, although Logan County is appealing.

In February 2011, Black-footed ferret specialist Travis Livieri and Larry spent several nights spotlighting, a way of surveying, to count and check on the ferrets.  Larry had not seen any prairie dogs for weeks.  Worries of plague subsided as they found ferret after ferret.  Travis placed “collars” or chip readers on burrows and replaced batteries in them. If the ferret comes close to the collar and the ferret has a chip, the collar will read it. As breeding season is upon them now, the collars are a way to count and keep track of the ferrets without undue disruption.

The specialist of specialists, Dean Biggins, arrived on the scene to do more spotlighting with Larry and Travis.  It was confirmed that the prairie dogs had gone into semi-hibernation and for the time, all is well.  About 75 ferrets now call the Haverfield ranch home.  May the Black-footed ferrets and all animals that inhabit the prairie “live long, and prosper.”

March 14th -17th and 21st-24th, conservation stewards will arrive at the Haverfield ranch to “spotlight” and to collar the prairie dog holes.  I’d hoped to be with them, but will not make it this month.  Perhaps later this year.

If you want to smile, check out this amazing video of a Black-footed ferret and a prairie dog confrontation:

And if you want to get even happier, watch the Black-footed ferret’s happy dance:  This dance footage is from “Return of the Prairie Bandit”, a documentary by filmmaker Kenton Vaughan about the return of the ferret to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. The film is now showing in Canada. We hope it will soon be available in the United States.  Keep in touch at prairiewildlife.org or join them on Facebook.

Thank you to:

Larry and Bette Haverfield, prairie stewards and wildlife heroes.

Gordon and Martha Barnhardt

Maxine Blank

Travis Livieri, who is leading the black-footed ferret revival in North America, and who graciously shared information and the two ferret photos you see on this site.

Dean E. Biggins, expert on black-footed ferrets, polecats, and other species. He was involved in what he calls “the unsavory task” of trapping the last free-ranging black-footed ferrets, in the attempt to save them.  That attempt, for the present, was successful.

Read more about the black-footed ferrets and the continuing saga at Audubon of Kansas and Prairie Wildlife