The City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department wants to reintroduce the federally endangered black-footed ferret to manage the prairie dog colonies at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area north of Fort Collins.
But first, the city needs approval from the state, after receiving the go-ahead from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. On Saturday, Gov. John Hickenlooper will attend a signing ceremony at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery to sign a bill allowing the native black-footed ferret to be brought into Soapstone Prairie and Meadow Springs Ranch, both owned by Fort Collins. The ceremony will be at 11 a.m.
The black-footed ferret, a rare indigenous mammal with perky ears and a black mask of fur, relies on prairie dogs for its main food source and resides in prairie dog burrows.
“Without prairie dogs, you don’t have ferrets,” said Daylan Figgs, senior environmental planner for the Natural Areas Department.
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Black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered mammals in the world and their recovery efforts include a multi-agency captive breeding and reintroduction program. From 1991 to 2010, more than 3,000 captive-reared ferrets were reintroduced at 19 sites across North America. The captive-breeding program has successfully saved ferrets from extinction, but maintaining the captive population and producing kits for reintroduction is expensive. Furthermore, survival rates of captive-reared ferrets are lower than those of wild-born kits.
In an effort to help boost the survival of wild-born black-footed ferrets, scientists with the USDA-APHIS National Wildlife Research Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the University of Montana recently tested the effectiveness and feasibility of electric fencing to protect young ferrets from coyote predation at the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.
Researchers fenced portions of two prairie dog colonies within the wildlife refuge in order to exclude coyotes from areas inhabited by adult female ferrets and their litters. Results showed the electric fencing was an effective tool for reducing coyote activity in the study area and researchers observed a 22 percent higher survival rate for ferret kits living in protected areas versus unprotected areas. However, the fencing was not perfect and coyotes were found inside the fenced area on three occasions.
The cost for the fencing and its installation were approximately $7,200 per mile. Maintenance and monitoring costs for 2 months were an additional $1,025 per mile. Based on these numbers, researchers estimate that a 20–30 percent increase in the survival rate of wild-born kits would cost around $4,500 per ferret kit over 10 years. That cost drops to around $2,100 per ferret kit, if monitoring is done using volunteers and donated or borrowed vehicles. This study provides decisionmakers with valuable information for comparing the costs of breeding ferrets in captivity versus improving the survival of existing wild-born ferrets.
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is announcing the availability of the black-footed ferret Revised Recovery Plan. The black-footed ferret was historically found throughout the Great Plains, mountain basins and semi-arid grasslands of North America wherever prairie dogs occurred. The species is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The ferret’s close association with prairie dogs is an important factor in its decline. From the late 1800s to approximately the 1960s, conversion of native grasslands to cropland as well as poisoning and disease dramatically reduced prairie dog numbers. The ferret population declined as a result.
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The Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was historically found throughout the Great Plains, mountain basins, and semi-arid grasslands of North America wherever prairie dogs occurred, according to a news release from the federal agency.
The species is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
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The region of the American Prairie Reserve encompasses two national wildlife refuges. This is an area of Montana with dramatic cliffs cut by the Missouri River and rugged, wooded terrain housing mountain lions, elk and big horn sheep. As you move up from the river and north across the prairie, an expansive network of ecologically important prairie dog towns come into view. With 90% of ferret diets consisting of prairie dogs, the sight and sound of these important animals is encouraging. As Damien notes below, this area is one of just a handful of critical ferret reintroduction efforts in North America. – Sean Gerrity
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American pioneers saw the endless stretches of grassland of the Great Plains as a place to produce grain and beef for a growing country. But one casualty was the native prairie ecosystem and animals that thrived only there.
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- Two of the five species of prairie dogs are protected under The Endangered Species Act. Black-tailed prairie dogs have been granted a “Warranted but Precluded” Threatened Species listing, which means that biologically they deserve protection but the government does not have the resources required for enforcement at this time.
- Overall, prairie dogs inhabit less than 1% of their former range. New Mexico has the smallest remaining acreage of prairie dogs across their historical range. Best estimates on Gunnison’s populations are that they inhabit about 2% of their former region. This means overall numbers are dangerously low since their range is much smaller than that of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog. A surprisingly large percentage of remaining prairie dog colonies live in urban environments.
- Prairie dogs are known as a “keystone species.” Over 160 vertebrates alone are associated with large prairie dog colonies and over 80 on “urban” colonies. Possibly the world’s most endangered animal, the Black-footed Ferret, cannot live without prairie dogs. Some other federally protected species are nearly as dependent including the Ferruginous Hawk, the Burrowing Owl, the Swift Fox and the Mountain Plover. Biologists have termed them “perhaps the most important mammal on earth.”
Prairie dogs are important to their environment in three ways:
- They are the primary prey on rangelands and their colonies also provide a greater density of other prey species.
- They provide homes or shelters for dozens of species.
- Their positive effect on soil and vegetation conditions.
- Prairie dogs are annual breeders. About half of the females over two years of age will give birth to 3-5 pups in the spring. The overwhelming majority will not live six months.
- Prairie dogs are highly social and possess the most complex language of any animal ever studied. They display different calls for raptors, coyotes, humans and even humans carrying guns. They have numerous other calls totaling over fifty distinct “words.” Kissing, hugging and grooming are regular pastimes. Burrows are much like homes possessing front and back doors, toilets, listening posts, sleeping quarters and storage rooms.
- Poisoning prairie dogs is unacceptable. The primary poison used induces a slow, painful death that may take up to 72 hours. Other residents of their burrows suffer the same fate. Poisoning for population control is counter-productive. A mature colony left alone tends to expand about 2% per year. A poisoned colony expands at the rate of about 70% per year. Left to their own devices, prairie dogs experience their own natural population declines. They never undergo these decreases if we are constantly inducing our own, unnatural removal on their colonies.
- Shooting definitely has a significant impact on prairie dog populations. One heavily shot area was reduced by 10,000 acres in just a couple of years. Shooting promotes disease, discourages other species from hunting or living in the colony, and is not “hunting.”
Populations: The Ultimate Underdog
Two of the five species of prairie dogs are protected under the Endangered Species Act. There may be fewer Utah Prairie Dogs than Siberian Tigers. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, the most numerous due their large range, are considered a Candidate for Threatened Listing. They meet all criteria for listing, but the Fish and Wildlife Service does not yet have the resources to enforce the listing, so they were placed on the Candidate List in 2000. They are on about 1% of their former range.
Prairie dogs are a ‘keystone species,’ or most important element, of their environment.
Up to 160 other species benefit from their presence.
They enrich their environment in three ways:
- As the primary prey on rangelands.
- They build homes or shelter for many species.
- They alter vegetation and soil to promote optimum grazing conditions.
The Black-footed Ferret is the most endangered mammal on our continent and cannot live without prairie dogs under any circumstances.
The Ferruginous Hawk, Swift Fox, Mountain Plover, and Burrowing Owl, are considered for or federally protected species that are considered dependent on prairie dogs. Several other species are considered dependent on prairie dogs. Several other species are considered dependent.
It’s a Dog’s Life: a Brief Description of the Prairie Dogs, Themselves
Prairie dogs possess, perhaps, the most complex language of any animal ever studied. Even more so than primates. They have over fifty primary ‘words’ and can communicate in sentences, distinguish color, speed, and level of threat through language.
Prairie dogs live in family units called ‘coteries’. They often ‘kiss’ in a familial identification. The animals commonly seen poised on their hindquarters are sentries, ever vigilant on the lookout for danger to themselves and families.
Prairie dogs are annual breeders. Fifty percent of females over two years of age will give birth to about 4 pups in the spring. There is tremendous juvenile mortality.
Prairie dogs live to be about five years old in the wild.
Burrows are complex, with separate ‘rooms’ for each function of life. Toilet chambers, sleeping quarters and storage typify a home burrow. Often, listening posts are created near the entrance for added protection. Some burrows have several entrances.
Gunnison’s and White-tailed Prairie Dogs hibernate, or go into torpor, as it is called, from about November through February. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs do not hibernate.