Wildlife biologist Randy Matchett makes his way back to a spotlightequipped truck during a search for black-footed

ferrets in the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge.

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Stuck in a Hole
Beset by disease and habitat loss, the black-footed ferret struggles just to survive, let alone recover
BY SCOTT McMILLION PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

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Randy Matchett observes ferret number 484, identified by the ring-shaped electronic reader that detected a chip embedded under her skin.

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C

atching a black-footed ferret isn’t so hard. A long, narrow trap, made of steel mesh and wrapped in a blanket, will usually do the trick.
“I’m looking forward to the time when I don’t know everybody out here,” Matchett says of the ferrets on the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge. But that day isn’t likely to arrive any time soon. Despite two decades of labor and expense, blackfooted ferrets still teeter on the verge of extinction. It’s 4 a.m. and he’s in a 1,000-acre prairie dog town, just a quick shot north of the Missouri River, 50 miles from any pavement. Weather is coming to this wild place but it’s not here yet and the stars astound in the clear sky. Matchett has been tending ferrets here since 1994, trying to foster a wild population, and he’s frustrated. He’s released 235 of them over the years and documented the birth of 291 more. At one point, in 1999, the population here rose to 90 animals, mostly wild born. But then it started dropping and by the end of his 2013 counting period, despite night after night of lighting up the prairie, he could confirm only three survivors. “It’s pretty bleak,” he said, and he’s not sure what happened to all of the UL Bend ferrets. Black-footed ferrets live in a harsh world where half of newborns die in the first year and a fouryear-old is an elderly individual. Rattlesnakes eat the little ones. Coyotes and great horned owls gobble any they can catch. It’s all part of the complicated, intertwined relationships that swirl around a prairie dog colony, an ecosystem that some people compare to a coral reef because of the web of life it supports. Despite that harshness, ferrets made homes in prairie dog towns for at least 100,000 years, evolution sharpening them into agile predators that can kill prairie dogs at will. But 97 percent of the

But you can’t do that until you find the ferret. And that’s the hard part. They dislike daylight and live mostly underground, coming out to see the world only during the blackness of night. You need a strong spotlight, a lot of coffee and plenty of patience to see a wild ferret. Cast your light everywhere, bathe the prairie with it, do it all night long, driving in circles, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get lucky. If you do, you’ll spot the eyes first, licorice drops that flash green in the spotlight, that luminesce like pearls. And when you do get lucky, your fatigue melts, your heart skips a beat. You scamper to the prairie dog burrow, the place where the ferret dens and hunts and sleeps. And there, three feet away, stands one of the rarest mammals in the world, bold and curious, staring back at you and wondering just how to make these large and pesky intruders go away. Randy Matchett, a senior biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, knows this animal, both this species and this individual. He’s caught it before and is reluctant to catch it again. “That’s a three-year-old wild-born female,” he predicts. Then he waves his hand over her head, keeping her in the burrow until he can confirm his suspicions. He places a hard plastic ring over the mouth of the burrow and backs off a step until the ferret emerges again, a taut cord of muscle, about the same diameter from ears to hip, and the computer chip under her skin sets off a signal in the plastic ring. It’s as he expected: this is ferret number 484. He backs off, tells his crew to do the same, to retreat and watch. He hopes this one has kits somewhere.

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prairie dog towns have been eradicated in Wyoming, in the 1980s, the last members of the American West, done in by plows and the last wild population on earth. After some poisons and bullets, often with government fits and starts, some bouts of disease, scienhelp. And wild ferrets can’t live without praitists figured out how to breed them in captivrie dog towns. ity. That part of the ferret restoration program While they will occasionally kill a works quite well. cottontail or a mouse, ferrets are what bioloOther aspects worked, too. Scientists gists call an “extreme specialist.” That developed an effective vaccine for plague, means they depend on prairie dogs for food, a disease that likely entered the country in and on their burrows for shelter from weather rat-and-flea infested ships from overseas, so and places to hide from bigger predators. all ferrets are vaccinated for both plague and “Their entire biology is built to survive in canine distemper, a difficult process that is a tunnel system,” Matchett says. “They’re as possible only because the ferret population is agile upside down as they are right side up.” so small. Scientists also developed a vaccine Matchett works quickly and And then there is disease. Sylvatic for prairie dogs. It works in the laboratory carefully to measure, vaccinate plague, the same disease that wiped out so but prairie dogs are too numerous to capture and implant a microchip in a ferret kit. many Europeans in the Middle Ages, can and inject individually, so a widespread oral kill a black-footed ferret three days after an vaccine is now undergoing testing, which infected flea sucks out a droplet of blood. It means scattering peanut butter-flavored can empty thousands of acres of prairie dogs pellets over thousands of acres. in a couple of weeks. A new vaccine renders ferrets immune Biologists experimented with different ways of releasto the disease, but it doesn’t prevent starvation, which follows ing ferrets into the wild, eventually learning that captive-born the plague when it decimates a prairie dog town. That’s what animals needed something like a boot camp if they were to happened to the prairie dogs and ferrets in the 40 Complex, a survive. So they are “preconditioned,” kept in a simulation of a similar project a few miles north of the UL Bend, and in many wild prairie dog colony where they learn to hunt. The scientists other places around the West. tried using stuffed owls, a mechanical badger and live dogs to No prairie dogs, no ferrets. teach the ferrets to be wary of bigger predators, but that didn’t work so well. Government shooters killed a lot of coyotes around prairie dog towns, but others replaced them soon enough. Crews Tests, fleas and vaccines strung electrified woven wire around prairie dog towns, to MATCHETT AND OTHER SCIENTISTS AROUND THE WEST HAVE wORKED keep the coyotes out. It worked for a while, but the results were for years, trying to solve the plague problem, trying to think as temporary. big as a prairie. All the black-footed ferrets in North America And ferrets need a lot of room. A breeding age female needs descend from seven individuals captured near Meteetse, about 100 acres of prairie dogs to make a living. And Matchett’s

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SOLD
Once biologist Randy Matchett has gathered data, implanted a chip and vaccinated a ferret kit, he examines its teeth before releasing it back into the wild. This animal still had its baby teeth.

charts show that, without at least 5,000 acres of prairie dogs, chances are slim for a sustainable population of ferrets. While Lewis and Clark and other pioneers reported prairie dog colonies that stretched for mile after mile, things have changed since then. Prairie dogs are constant gardeners, mowing around their burrows until the grass is as short as a putting green. Ranchers understandably see them as vermin, and many have done all they can, often with government help, to eradicate them. Now, government agencies are considering ways that would allow the Sylvatic plague, the same government to pay private landowners to foster prairie dogs, essentially rentdisease that wiped out so ing that land from them. For some of many Europeans in the those landowners, a program like that could produce revenue instead of the Middle Ages, can kill a periodic expense of trying to control prairie dogs, according to Pete Gober, black-footed ferret three who runs the nationwide black-footed days after an infected ferret program. A handful of such ranchers in several states could make flea sucks out a droplet a big difference, he says. of blood. It can empty And some landowners take nontraditional views of prairie dogs, thousands of acres of even welcoming them. Organizations prairie dogs in a couple such as The Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Reserve, of weeks. for instance, both own large properties near the UL Bend. Tribal lands also play a role, and the Fort Belknap Reservation recently accepted 30 new ferrets. There, people are hoping for a better result than they achieved in the 1990s, when 167 ferrets were released but none survived. This time, with help from the World Wildlife Fund, workers are dusting the prairie dog burrows with insecticide to kill fleas that carry plague, hoping to hold disease at bay.

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As the sun rises over the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, a young ferret is released into the same prairie dog hole where it was captured.

Other landowners around the West are interested in hosting prairie dogs and ferrets, Matchett says, and plans are afoot to grant those people or organizations a “Safe Harbor Agreement,” a set of assurances that, if, for instance, somebody runs over a ferret on private land “the wrath of the Endangered Species Act won’t fall on the landowners.” The Wildlife Service’s 2013 recovery plan for ferrets says prairie dogs occupy about 3.7 million acres in the West today. If 15 percent of that land, about 500,000 acres, were managed to promote ferrets, the population could be recovered by 2040, the plan says. And other rare species that depend on prairie dog towns, such as mountain plovers and ferruginous hawks, would benefit, too. But that management won’t be easy and it will be expensive. Since plague is so widespread, ferret recovery means prairie dog burrows will need repeated dustings with insecticide. Ferrets will have to be captured and vaccinated. It will mean vaccinating thousands and thousands of acres of prairie dogs every year, assuming the new vaccine proves worthwhile in the field. It will mean constant monitoring of ferrets to see if all this work is working, if it’s possible to push back on plague. Matchett

sees some irony in all this: “We’re using the highly endangered black-footed ferret as a medium to study bacteria.” The recovery plan estimates that costs—vaccinations, obtaining and protecting habitat, running the captive breeding facility, dusting for fleas, building partnerships—will total $150 million by 2040. That’s an average of $3 million a year. But as Matchett notes, the Wildlife Service has little choice but to do all it can to restore the species. He sees it as a moral imperative, plus restoration is the mandate of the Endangered Species Act and the black-footed ferret was one of the first species to be listed under that act. “Those are my marching orders,” he says. “To try to accomplish this.” Delisting the ferret will come only when 3,000 breeding adults live in nine states. At the end of October, after 30 years on the ESA list, there were perhaps 400 of them, mostly in other states with bigger prairie dog colonies, but places where plague is always a threat. At the UL Bend, at the end of 2013, there were only three ferrets.

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Survival Dance
AFTER FERRET NUmBER 484 wAS IDENTIFIED, on that September night of astounding starlight, Matchett’s crew spread out, blanketing the prairie with lights of its own. It was quiet, mostly, not much moving around except the pickups, a couple of coyotes, a badger and some deer. The burrowing owls had retired for the evening. Then the radio crackled. “I see a ferret. I think I see two of them,” came a message from a pickup parked by research headquarters, the collection of camp trailers the locals derisively call the “ferret farm.” Three vehicles converge, aiming spotlights, flashlights, headlamps. And there is number 484 again, trying to bring her kit to a prairie dog hole, where she likely has a fresh kill. Four bright eyes offer green luminescence as the mother drags the kit by the neck, pushes it from behind. Matchett watches for a moment, waiting, then hustles toward the animals; the kit is in a hole, the mother a few feet away. This is an opportunity. He stuffs the wire trap in the opening and wraps it in a blanket to block the light and make it seem like an extension of the burrow. Then, everybody backs off and 10 minutes later he has a ferret kit in the trap. Then comes anesthesia, blood tests, the pulling of hair for DNA analysis, vaccinations for plague and distemper, the hypodermic injection of two microchips (sealing the tiny wound with superglue) and the application of some black hair dye on the neck and chest, so the animal can be identified later as one that needs no further capture. The kit is a little small for this time of year: 500 grams, about a pound. Matchett returns the kit to the burrow where he captured it, pours a cup of coffee and grins. Then another kit pops up and he repeats the process. Two kits in one night. That’s lucky, he says. Real lucky. And a month later, they’re gone. Both kits and the mother have disappeared. “We pounded it for six nights” in October, he says, but found no sign of the family, though he spotted three other ferrets. Maybe the family moved. Maybe the luck turned in a coyote’s favor. Nobody knows for sure. Next year, more captive ferrets will be released at the UL Bend. Each will carry microchips under its skin, vaccines in its blood, more memory of man in its brain than of coyotes and owls and snakes. “It’s not very satisfying but that’s the dance we have to dance,” Matchett says. “But with this particular species and with this exotic disease (plague), I don’t see that we have any options.” And without this dance, the ferret doesn’t have any options at all.

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