Partners commit to five-year plan

Prior to late 2007, a black-footed ferret had not been documented in Kansas since 1957. Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in cooperation with local landowners and The Nature Conservancy, released 24 captive-reared ferrets on three private ranches in Logan County.

Several organizations – USFWS, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health and Inspection Service (APHIS), The Nature Conservancy, and Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks -- are joining forces to apply intensive management of prairie dogs at ferret reintroduction sites. Black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dog burrows for cover, and prey primarily on prairie dogs. The species historically occupied the western two-thirds of Kansas in association with black-tailed prairie dogs.

The goal of the partners’ management plan is to maintain robust prairie dog populations at the ferret reintroduction sites, while limiting expansion of prairie dogs onto adjacent private lands. The partnering organizations are funding operations of an APHIS employee to manage prairie dogs to meet that goal. Management efforts will continue for five years, after which the reintroduction experiment may be terminated or continued indefinitely depending upon success and cooperating landowner desires.

“These partner organizations are committed to managing prairie dogs in an ecologically and economically responsible manner that considers the well-being of other species that depend on prairie dog habitats,” said USFWS Field Supervisor Mike LeValley. “Management methods will be those best supported by existing research as ecologically sound and effective. The partner organizations would prefer using non-lethal prairie dog management methods, if effective ones can be identified, and we’re all sensitive to the concerns some landowners have about the impact of prairie dogs on livestock forage.”

The rarest of North American mammals, and an endangered species, only 18 black-footed ferrets existed in 1986, down from a population that once covered the entire Great Plains. Aggressive conservation, captive rearing, and reintroduction efforts have restored ferret numbers to well over 600 today.

To improve the status of the species from endangered to threatened, the national goal is to establish 10 free-ranging populations of ferrets, spread over the widest possible area within their former range. Wildlife managers hope that 1,500 breeding adult ferrets will be established in the wild by the year 2010.

Ferrets live and rear their young in prairie dog burrows. They have one litter each year, with an average of about three kits per litter. In the wild, kits do not come above ground until they are two to three months old. Mothers and young remain together until early fall. By October, the kits are able to take care of themselves. Recent field studies reveal that the Logan County ferrets have reproduced at the reintroduction sites and are faring well.

While the black-tailed prairie dog is a species of concern in some circles, it is not protected under the Endangered Species Act.

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