Colorado is home to more captive black-footed ferrets – one of America’s most endangered mammals – than any other state.
Yet none of the more than 300 ferrets bred in captivity across the U.S. will be released in Colorado unless the General Assembly approves a measure now under consideration.
“We would love to have ferrets reintroduced into Colorado,” said Della Garelle, director of field conservation at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, who has worked with the imperiled ferrets since 1995. “They are very compatible animals. They are compatible with grazing, with drilling, all they need is a healthy population of prairie dogs.”
High on the hill at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, keepers painstakingly monitor and care for 28 black-footed ferrets ahead of a short and critical breeding season.
The white ferrets with black patches on their faces and feet are among the most endangered species in the U.S. They were twice thought to be extinct. Only about 500 remain in the wild at a half-dozen sites, which is down from a peak of 1,000 since conservation efforts started to recreate a wild population in the late 1980s.
Ferrets born this spring at the zoo – kits that mature rapidly – will be sent to Wellington in northern Colorado where they will join ferrets from the five other breeding centers in the world. At the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center the ferrets are preconditioned to return to the wild.
But none of those ferrets will be released in Colorado, a place where they once thrived among colonies of their primary food source – prairie dogs.
A 1999 law requires legislative approval before any endangered species are introduced or reintroduced in the state.
Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, wants to allow private landowners in Colorado to volunteer for populations of ferrets to be set free on their land.
Crowder, a rancher, said he’d like ferrets on his land to help manage a sizeable prairie dog population. The thin weasel-like ferrets sneak up on prairie dogs while they sleep at night, corner them in the tunnel and make the kill.
The cute critters that spend their days hiding in prairie dog tunnels and their nights hunting, are not without controversy.
In Kansas some landowners have been barred from poisoning prairie dogs because it can indirectly harm ferret populations. There’s a lawsuit pending before the Kansas Supreme Court between Logan County officials trying to make landowners control prairie dog populations and landowners. Prairie dogs have taken over neighboring property in the absence of poison, according to Michael Irvin, legislative counsel for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Irvin wrote to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month expressing the concerns of ranchers and farmers about a safe harbor agreement that would allow ferrets on private land.
Crowder said his bill and its safe harbor provisions protect landowners who volunteer their land for ferret populations. Colorado landowners would not be held liable for the accidental death of the ferrets and land use wouldn’t be restricted.
“This gets caught up in the issue of people trying to make a living,” said Pete Gober, director of the black footed ferret recovery program for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We see a lot of potential to work with landowners about the concerns they have, like ‘if you put an endangered species on my property it could compromise my ability to make a living.’”
The conservation center is willing to let landowners try out the new tenants and back out if things don’t work.
“You can participate, but if you get tired of participating, you can back out and we’ll come find the ferrets,” Gober said.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association supports the ferret bill that has passed the Senate and is awaiting hearing in a House committee.
Meanwhile at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the ferrets are being groomed for breeding. Because the animals will be set free, they are not on display and keepers don’t handle the animals or even speak while in the room with them.
Since 1991 the facility has helped breed 220 ferrets specifically for release – 162 kits and 58 adults – and a total of 443 of the ferrets were born at Cheyenne Mountain. At an annual meeting of the seven breeding facilities, keepers bring stud books and a complicated computer program matches up mates to maximize genetic diversity. The centers swap animals well before the breeding season so they can adjust in time for mating.
Reintroduction has had limited success. Part of the problem has been inbreeding – stemming from a population of the last 18-surviving ferrets captured in 1987.
Garelle said the ferrets have weak immune systems, which has made it hard for wild populations to thrive. A 2010 goal of having 1,500 ferrets living on 10 sites in the wild has not been met.
“Part of that problem is not having enough sites, so hopefully the combination of this safe harbor and the legislation will help,” Garelle said. “Some of this legislation is trying to take advantage of where prairie dogs are.”
Gober said there is prime prairie-dog rich property in much of eastern Colorado for the ferrets, which ideally would be released on large properties between 5,000 and 10,000 acres.
ABOUT THE BILL
SB169: Would allow reintroduction of black-footed ferrets on private land in Colorado with landowner approval. Provides “safe harbor” for landowners in the event animals are accidentally killed or they want the animals removed from the land.
Authors: Senators Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa; Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village; Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth.
Action: Passed Senate 30-4 with one excused
Next Step: House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee
MIKAYLA ON DISPLAY
In addition to being one of seven breeding facilities in the world for black-footed ferrets, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo also has one of the few of the endangered ferrets on display for the public.
Mikayla is a 7-year-old female who was retired from breeding after having multiple litters. Old for a ferret, but still spry, Mikayla could not be set free because of poor vision caused by cataracts. She can be viewed in The Loft on the other side of the room from her prey: black-tailed prairie dogs.