Black-Footed Ferrets Are Hoping To Make A Historic Comeback

Apr 15, 2016

Credit J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS

 


Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are planning a historic venture this summer. They hope to bring black-footed ferrets back to Meeteetse, where they were found 35 years ago when the species was thought to be extinct.

Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct in 1981 when John Hogg’s dog brought a dead one to his ranch house near Meeteetse. Hogg has since passed away. But, on the 25th anniversary of the ferret’s discovery near Meeteetse, Hogg told the story, again.

He remembered, “We took it down to a taxidermist in town here, and he said, ‘Oh my God, you got a ferret.’ And I said, ‘What the hells’ that?’ Ha, ha, I didn’t know what it was.”

Dennie Hammer was a biologist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service then. He had been looking for black-footed ferrets in southern Wyoming. When Hammer got the call to go to Meeteetse, he and another ferret finder started spotlighting on the Pitchfork Ranch, next to the Hogg place. They were driving slowly, and looking, and looking, then it happened. His field notes tell the rest. 

He read, “At 6:20 my next recorded entry is in very bold letters: I saw a ferret!”

When it was confirmed black-footed ferrets still lived in the wild in Northwest Wyoming, the media and scientists from around the world descended on Meeteetse. The tiny town of 300 people was known around the world.

Eventually, 118 black-footed ferrets were counted on the Pitchfork. But in the late eighties, disease struck. Jack Turnell was the owner-operator of the Pitchfork then. 

He said later, “In three years we lost 30,000 prairie dogs through this area because of the plague, and the ferret had distemper.”

The ferrets’ numbers were down to 18 animals in the wild, when it was decided the species had to be rescued, and the little predators were trapped, and taken to a research facility in Sybille Canyon. There, they were bred for reintroduction. And they were put back out on Wyoming’s wild landscape in Shirley Basin in 1991. Black-footed ferrets were also released in Mexico, Canada, and seven other states. 

Meeteetse had always hoped to get black-footed ferrets back and since a rule was enacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they could be reintroduced to the area this July.

John Hogg’s son, Allen Hogg said recently, “It just became kind of a symbol of our community.”

He wants them back on the family ranch. 

He told Park County Commissioners, “It’s been kind of a dream of ours to get the ferrets back for a long time.”

Dr. Lenox Baker owns the other ranch where ferrets were found in the early eighties: the Pitchfork. He wants black-footed ferrets back, too.  Dr. Baker was so anxious to have ferrets that he allowed Wyoming’s Game and Fish to do a three-year study on his ranch…that was aimed at saving prairie dogs from the plague. It was a bait based vaccine. It seemed to work, because for the first time in 35 years, there seemed to be enough prairie dogs to feed ferrets.

The Fish and Wildlife service says the success of the reintroduction depends on how well the ferrets adapt to the surroundings.