Celebrating Ferret Day at Wind Cave National park and remembering the dog that saved a species

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
A snoozing black-footed ferret was a visitor treat during Ferret Day

If you love black-footed ferrets — or at least love the idea of their survival — you should also love Shep.

He helped drag ferrets back from the brink of extinction, by killing one.

This was not an act of kindness. Shep was just a ranch dog, doing the ranch-dog thing: roaming around the pastures, snuffling up interesting stuff and, when so inspired, killing it.

In this case, thank heavens and canine inclinations, he also brought it home.

“If Shep had not killed that ferret, they would have been gone,” says Kimberly Fraser of the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center near Fort Collins, Colo.

In fact, black-footed ferrets were presumed to be gone before Shep got involved. The wiry little members of the weasel family, known for their mask-like facial pattern and unrelenting appetite for prairie dogs, were rare enough to be protected by provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1967.

But it soon became clear that the protection might have come too late. The black-footed ferret hadn’t been confirmed in the wild for years when Shep caught one in 1981.

“Shep did what dogs do,” Fraser said. “He killed it. But he didn’t eat it. He didn’t bury it. He brought it home.”

Home for Shep was on the ranch of John and Lucille Hogg near the small town of Meeteetse in northwest Wyoming. And their look-what-the-dog-dragged-in moment was a bit of a happy homecoming, for overall ferret survival if not for the individual ferret that Shep managed to get his teeth on.

But Shep doesn’t get all the credit. While John Hogg was going to throw away the odd little carcass, Lucille had other plans.

“When John went in and told his wife — who’s the real hero — she was curious,” Fraser said. “So she went outside and looked at it. And she decided she wanted to get it mounted.”

Good idea. No, great idea. Species-saving idea, in fact.

The taxidermist in Meeteetse was pretty sure of what he had at first glance. He stepped in the back room and made a phone call.

“Then he came out and said, ‘John, I’m going to have to take that. It’s an endangered species,’” Fraser said.

Soon wildlife biologists descended on the Hogg ranch and surrounding environs to look for what they hoped would be a priceless population of black-footed ferrets.

“The biologists knew the ferrets were out there, but they didn’t know where,” Fraser said.

So they hunted and hunted, and hoped. And Fraser speaks affectionately of the night a ferret ran across the road in front of one of the biological team’s vehicles. The vehicle stopped. And the biologist inside wept, with joy and with relief.

And with good reason, considering what might have been.

“I think it’s the best story we have in North American conservation,” Fraser said.

She’s biased on that point, of course, but also well informed.

Soon “Meeteetse” was a name known throughout the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other state, federal and private wildlife-and-conservation groups. The Hoggs, and Shep, were the focus of the international endangered-species community and, for a time, of one news story after the other.

The Meeteetse ferrets became the source of today's population, in the wild and in captivity.  The captive ferrets produce young to be distributed to carefully selected — meaning they have healthy expanses of prairie dogs — re-introduction sites.

Those sites include Wind Cave National Park, which last week celebrated the 10-year-anniversary of the first seven ferrets being reintroduced to the park. Fraser was at the park visitor center as part of Ferret Day, along with other wildlife specialists, a variety of displays and mounts and a live ferret Fraser brought from the center in northern Colorado.

The ferret population living in Wind Cave — and in some areas just across park boundaries — is now conservatively estimated at 30 to 35. It could be a little higher than that, and is likely to be going up along with the park’s prairie dog population, according to park biologist Dan Roddy.

“There’s an amazing pup population out there this year, and in a year or two we’ll see the effects of that in the ferrets,” Roddy said.

Since the reintroduction in July of 2007, the ferret population in the 33,000-acre park has fluctuated from about 30 to about 60, largely based on the prairie dog population. The ferret population was estimated at 60 to 64 in 2011 and has dropped by about half over the last six years. Roddy said much of that was tied to the reduction in prairie dogs at a major colony, which went from 900 acres to about 300.

What happens at Wind Cave is important to the overall ferret effort, because the park typically has about 10 percent of the 300 to 500 ferrets living in far-flung prairie-dog colonies in the wild. Ferrets have been reintroduced at 28 locations in eight states, Canada and Mexico.

So far, plague has not been confirmed in Wind Cave, at least not in epidemic proportions. That large colony in the southern part of the park is back to about 600 acres now. And drought conditions have begun to subside. So Roddy is hopeful ferret numbers there will follow the better environmental conditions and the upward trend in the prairie dog population.

That’s essential, because while ferrets kill and eat other things, prairie dogs make up about 90 percent of their food base. So hard times for prairie dogs can bring dangerously hard times for ferrets.

When outbreaks of canine distemper and sylvatic plague hit the prairie dog towns near Meeteetse in 1984, the combination of the disease and lost food sources threatened to wipe out the ferrets.

By 1987, with extinction again looming, biologists had trapped 18 ferrets from the Meeteetse area. With those animals, the Fish & Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game, and Fish Department began a captive-breeding program that has expanded to a number of facilities in the United States and Canada.

It's a successul, essential program but it continues to face challenges. They incude the effects of inbreeding, since only seven of the 18 ferrets captured at Meeteetse were key genomic founding animals. That means all of the ferrets alive today are descendents of those seven, creating what Fraser called a "genetic bottleneck."

That leads to disease and birth defects in some individual ferrets. Along with plague, those genetic problems are considered the two major obstacles to assuring sustainable ferret populations in the wild. Some scientists think that just as threats to ferret survival lie in their genetics, solutions may be wait there, too. And reserach into the ferrets genome continues, hopefully.

Meanwhile, the role of captive breeding and reintroduction is crucial. The captive-breeding center near Fort Collins was built in 2005, and Fraser says it holds slightly more than 100 ferrets right now. The young ferrets produced there are carefully prepared for the wild before they are released.

That pre-conditioning process lasts a minimum of 30 days and requires the ferrets to kill at least three prairie dogs before they are turned loose.

“It’s like a boot camp for ferrets,” Fraser said.

Once the ferrets make it through the pre-conditioning period, they are hauled with haste — and, depending on the time of year, with the air-conditioner running full blast — to carefully selected release locations across the original range of the prairie dogs, and the ferrets.

Ferrets are most comfortable in the cool, subterranean conditions of prairie-dog burrows. There the ambient temperature eight feet below the surface is about 55 degrees year round. The animals do OK in warmer temperatures, but not too much warmer, and not for long.

“They can’t take it above 75 degrees for any length of time,” Fraser said.

So they don’t venture out of the burrows much or for long when it is warm. That means most ferret activity, and most ferret research and sightings, occurs at night. That’s also the best time to see a ferret. But you’ll have trouble spotting one in Wind Cave after dark. Use of spotlights there is prohibited, except for research or other approved activities.

Ferrets have been seen during the day in Wind Cave. Early morning is considered the best time, especially during overcast days. You can expect to find them in and near prairie dog towns, although they have been seen elsewhere, typically when a young male ferret is migrating to a new territory.

Which might have been what the ferret Shep caught was up to.

Roddy and other Wind Cave staff members had hoped to be able to release some ferrets from the center in the park for the 10-year anniversary last week. But the selected ferrets weren’t quite through boot camp in time for the release.

The adult female ferret that was on display wasn’t eligible for release, either,  because she has tooth problems likely to hurt her survival chances in the wild. But she was a hit among park visitors, even though she spent most of her time snoozing behind glass in a ribbed rubber tube.

After almost 40 years of reporting on ferrets, I was among those who pressed close to look at the adorable face of a 1 3/4-pound prairie-dog assassin. And I returned to the case again and again for another look.

Getting the general public a close-up view of a live ferret is important to increasing public awareness, education and support for ferret preservation work. It’s also essential to the prairie-dog dependent ecosystem that sustains the endangered ferrets, but also supports burrowing owls, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, snakes and amphibians and untold numbers of insects and spiders.

Ferret preservation is part of a larger effort to preserve the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem where prairie dogs once thrived but now are limited to about 2 percent of their original range. Decades of intense prairie-dog control reduced that range considerably. And, more recently, plague has wiped our large colonies of prairie dogs, including those that connected one to the other and stretched for miles and covered thousands of acres in parts of southwestern South Dakota. What limits the dogs limits the ferrets.

But ferrets are almost universally fetching, with a much-more endearing public-relations standing than prairie dogs, which have a long-and-conflicted relationship with agriculture.

“Ferrets are charismatic,” Fraser said. “And most Americans will never get to see a black-footed ferret. So things like this are huge.”

And such things only exist because of a ranch wife’s inquisitive nature and a ranch dog that was just doing what ranch dogs do.

In this case, they saved a species.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.