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Natural Resources & Energy

Three conservation groups are suing the USFWS over black-footed ferret management

A black-footed ferret.
J. Michael Lockhart
/
USFWS
The black-footed ferret was believed to be extinct until 1981 when a ranch dog named Shep in Meteetsee found a small population.

Three conservation groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over their management of endangered black-footed ferrets in Wyoming. In 2015, the USFWS implemented a new rule known as 10j that turned over black-footed ferret management to the State of Wyoming. According to WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and Rocky Mountain Wild, the state has since mishandled the ferret's reintroduction and management.

The removal of prairie dogs in the state is the biggest concern for the groups. Ferrets primarily eat prairie dogs and live in their burrows. Even though the black-footed ferret is listed as an endangered species, the implementation of the 10j rule designates Wyoming's populations as experimental nonessential populations, which means they don't get the protections of the Endangered Species Act including the same protection of their food and habitat.

At the time of the designation, the USFWS argued that this made it easier for landowners to host recovery populations. Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, argues this creates a loophole for the state.

"The state of Wyoming has no particular commitment to reintroduce black-footed ferrets anywhere in the state and also simultaneously is a participant in a campaign to eradicate blacktail prairie dogs from the state of Wyoming, together with the livestock industry," said Molvar. "The black-tailed prairie dog is the obligate food and habitat for black-footed ferrets. You can't have ferrets without having prairie dogs."

According to Molvar, reintroduction efforts have also been unable to keep up with the species' decline. The ferrets have only been introduced in two places: in the Shirley Basin and near Meteetsee, despite there being other areas that are suitable for reintroduction. Molvar said, in large part, that has to do with the livestock industry not wanting prairie dog colonies on their land.

The groups hope this lawsuit will return black-footed ferret management to the USFWS and designate them as endangered species in the state of Wyoming again, with all the protections that entails.

"We'd like to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designate the black-footed ferret as essential somewhere in its range," Molvar said. "Because if you're going to have a species that's endangered, on the brink of extinction, shouldn't they be essential somewhere?"

The USFWS declined to comment on the litigation.

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