Editor’s note: This story originally aired on July 10, 2015
A plague vaccine might help bring one of the most endangered mammals in North America back to Northwest Wyoming where they were discovered. Black Footed Ferrets may be restored to the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, because their food, prairie dogs, are coming back.
An angry black footed ferret barks as she tries to get back into the darkened part of her cage. She was brought to Meeteetse for the media and Game and Fish Commissioners to see one of the most endangered mammals in North America. They still number only in the hundreds, after more than four thousand born in captive breeding programs were returned to the wild.
Why aren’t black footed ferrets surviving? Partly because their only food source, prairie dogs, are being wiped out by the plague.
About four years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started testing a new plague vaccine in the lab. Dr. Tonie Rockie developed it.
Rockie said, “We needed to find a way to distribute large numbers of vaccine and oral baits is the way to go. So we just had some precedent already from the oral rabies vaccine.“
Three years ago, Wyoming Game and Fish biologists started testing it in one place in Wyoming: the Pitchfork Ranch, near Meeteetse…almost 30 years after the plague killed most of the prairie dogs here, and forced the evacuation of the world’s last wild colony of black footed ferrets.
Scientists believed the ferrets were extinct by 1979…Then, a Meeteetse rancher’s dog brought a dead one to his home in 1981. The rancher, John Hogg, has passed away. But in 2007, he recalled the incident
Hog said, “We took it down to a taxidermist here in town here, and he said, ‘Oh my God, you got a ferret, and I said what the hell’s that?”
Dennie Hammer was one of two federal biologists who discovered a live ferret on the Pitchfork Ranch next to Hawgs ranch in October, 1981.
He recalled, “That was one of the happiest days of my life.”
The science world was stunned when about 122 ferrets were found on the Pitchfork. But, then disease started killing the ferrets, and their food source, the prairie dogs. Hammer says it was one of the worst days in his life..
Hammer said, “When Sylvatic plague and canine distemper in the same prairie dog colony where we found the black footed ferret.”
There were only 18 ferrets left, when they had to be taken off the land, and put in breeding facilities.
Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released ferrets in several states. About thirty ferrets were counted in Wyoming’s Shirley Basin last year. An estimated one to three hundred live in the wild.
Wyoming wants to bring more ferrets back to the state, so the Game and Fish Department has asked the Service for a 10J rule designation. That would allow ferrets, and their food, white tailed prairie dogs, to be established on private lands….with protection for the landowners if an animal is accidentally killed.
Dr. Lenox Baker owns the Pitchfork Ranch. He bought it in 1999, partly because the last ferrets were found here.
Baker admitted, “It was one of the attractive things about it. Certainly was.“
He wants them back.
He explained, “We’re very much interested in trying to get the ferret back. And that’s why we’re doing the study with the prairie dogs. If the prairie dog population increases here and we get rid of the plague, then one of the plans is to have the ferret reintroduced here.”
Because of the promising results of the vaccine developed by Dr. Rockie, he may get his wish.
For three years, Wyoming Game and Fish biologists have been putting out thousands of small peanut butter flavored vaccine laced chewies in the prairie dog colonies. Then they trap the wild rodents, take hair and blood samples, tag them, and count them.
Biologist Jess Boulerice says the colony seems to be doubling in size each year:
He said, “Three years I’ve been here it has certainly grown. We can see it grow, you walk out and just see more prairie dogs.”
Prairie dogs are hated by some ranchers, because they say they damage the rangeland. But Pitchfork Ranch owner Lenox Baker says a healthy black footed ferret population would control the population.
If the study confirms the vaccine works, and if the 10j rule is enacted in Wyoming, biologists say prairie dogs will thrive on this ranch, and the black footed ferret may once again have a stable population at the Pitchfork.