A few years ago, I was in Wyoming and late one evening, the group of us, organized by Keystone Conservation, based in Bozeman, MT, joined a few wildlife biologists for a night of “spotlighting.” No, not some arcane western ritual, but a hunt of sorts: for nocturnal animals. We were in search of black-footed ferrets, those rather mysterious, slender little mammals that used to populate the Great Plains. Over the past century or so, as their main (read: usually only) food source, the once-ubiquitous prairie dog, has been exterminated in their millions (perhaps billions, and a process that continues) by ranchers, the ferret’s fortunes, like those of the prairie dog, took a decided turn downward.
But biologists and activists have been waging a still-lonely battle to bring the ferrets back and protect what remains of prairie dog communities. That night of spotlighting, we spotted a few of the ferrets, a captive population that had been bred and released. Their bright green eyes were almost uniquely luminous under the glare of the spotlight held aloft so we could see the creatures. The ferrets seemed mildly dismayed, possibly bemused, but mostly unfazed. They returned to their dens, which are prairie dog dens as well. The prairie dogs do the digging and the ferret, as a higher-up-the-food-chain predator, moves in. (Sounds familiar, no?) It wasn’t clear if the ferrets would make it. The program was new, the livestock ranchers still hostile.
So, imagine my delight when I came across an article saying that ferrets were thriving in Wyoming. The program has been a success. Drum roll please. There are now . . . 223 ferrets in the Shirley Basin region. I guess that’s not a small enough number to sneeze at, but there are more people, it seems, on my subway car in the morning. Ferrets used to be classified as the most endangered mammal in the world. It’s good to have them around again in larger numbers, and with them, the prairie dog and some modicum of prairie. But I wish the threshold for success’and cries of “They’re BACK”‘was higher.