A tiny black-footed male ferret with a curious look and a twitching nose emerged from his carrier shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday at a ranch west of Pueblo.
The ferret, who was born and raised at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, hesitantly looked around at the wide, dusty expanse that was about to become his new home. He finally decided the coast was clear and dived into the prairie dog hole just inches from the carrier.
"There he goes," someone chimed in from a group of zoo employees and volunteers that gathered around the carrier to see the endangered animal introduced into the wild.
The ferret was among about 35 ferrets getting a chance for new life Wednesday at Walker Ranch near U.S. 50 outside of Pueblo. More than 30 people, including zoo officials, media members, state parks and wildlife officials and U.S. Fish and Wildlife conservationists, joined the Walker family for the historic event.
The release comes less than a week after partners in 12 states completed a black-footed ferret "programmatic safe harbor agreement," allowing private landowners to release ferrets onto their land without having to worry about liability or loss of ownership rights if something happens to the animals. Wednesday's release was the inaugural introduction under the safe harbor agreement.
Gary Walker, who owns the more than 60,000-acre Walker Ranch, said he has been working for 20 years for the opportunity to not only help bring back the black-footed ferret, but also to curb the prairie dog population that has ravaged his land. Prairie dogs are the ferret's main food source.
The Walkers are cattle ranchers and prairie dogs have made about 10,000 acres of the ranch "unproductive," the landowner said.
"Cattle eat grass down to about an inch and a half," Walker said. "Prairie dogs eat it down to zip."
Walker's son Johnny Walker, 48, of Colorado Springs said the safe harbor pact allows ranchers to be "good stewards of the land," which he said is something most ranchers "like to do most."
The black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct in 1980 after prairie dog populations declined and non-native diseases plagued the species. Then in September 1981, a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead ferret home in Meeteetse, Wyo. Wildlife officials were notified, and black-footed ferret recovery was born in the small Wyoming town.
After decades of attempts by zoos and other organizations to reintroduce the ferret back into North America, there are now about 500 in the wild, said Dr. Della Garelle, a veterinarian and director of field conservation at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
Garelle said the zoo, in southwest Colorado Springs, has been part of the battle against black-footed ferret extinction since 1991. The zoo raises about 25 ferret kits each year and releases a select portion of that into the wild. The animals have been set free on public lands in Colorado or on private lands in other states until Wednesday, which was the 21st release for the zoo since 1991. According to Garelle, black-footed ferrets sleep in prairie dog burrows by day and hunt the slumbering dogs at night.
"They are so dependent on the burrows that they cannot survive without them," she said, noting that only one-tenth of 1 percent of existing prairie dog habitat is needed to bring the ferret population back from endangerment.
Before the young kits can be released, the ferrets at the zoo undergo tests and are eventually taken to a "boot camp" facility in Fort Collins where they learn skills needed to survive in the wild.
Each ferret is tagged with a microchip, and any animals found in the next year will be scanned for identification. Any ferrets found without a chip will indicate reproduction.
The ferrets are solitary animals, Garelle said. Because of that, the kits released Wednesday were let loose at least 200 yards from each other.
The veterinarian said survival will depend on how the animals avoid predators like coyotes, badgers and birds of prey and whether or not they can keep away from illness such as diseases from flea bites.
"First, they have to get through the winter," she said.