A captive-raised female black-footed ferret had what might be her last glimpse of humans Thursday afternoon at her new home in the Shirley Basin a dozen miles north of Medicine Bow.
Rancher Bob Heward, who runs cattle on 26,000 acres of remote Wyoming rangeland, kneeled in the sagebrush beside a prairie dog hole as he tipped open a small animal carrier with the ferret inside.
She hesitated to come out as a half-dozen Game and Fish biologists looked on, cameras poised to capture an image of the endangered species.
Dana Nelson, a nongame biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, tapped on the back of the plastic carrier with a wooden dowel, then slid a foot-long piece of black tubing into the hole — a taste of home for the ferret. Finally, the ferret slid her slender body from the cage to the tube and below ground.
Heward, wearing a welding glove, dangled a chunk of raw prairie dog above the tube for a moment, preparing to drop it in the hole. The ferret re-emerged with a loud chatter and darted at his outstretched hand.
“She had thoughts and feelings about that,” Nelson joked.
A moment later, she poked her head out of the tube one more time to survey the crowd, whose figures cast long, late-afternoon shadows near the hole. She looked slowly back and forth twice, then ducked back underground, where she’ll spend most of the rest of her life except when she leaves at night to hunt.
The surrounding grasslands — a moment earlier full of movement from prairie dogs popping in and out of holes — lay still. An old predator was back.
The Heward Ranch is part of a mix of private, state and federal land in the Shirley Basin, almost all of it open and undeveloped, save for the occasional wind turbines. Laramie Peak marked the skyline to the east and Elk Mountain to the west.
Except for a two-track road that barely broke through the turf, the ferret’s new home had no sign of human occupation from horizon to horizon.
Heward has been part of ferret recovery efforts in the area for the last 27 years, since wildlife officials first began releasing captive-bred ferrets there. He’s one of two participating landowners in the area and said he doesn’t mind working with wildlife managers.
“It’s a good project,” he said.
Except when he joins in on releases or accompanies biologists on their annual surveys, he and his low-profile neighbors never cross paths.
“All the time we’ve been around out here, I’ve never seen one,” he said of the ferrets.
In total, a couple dozen captive-raised black footed ferrets were released by Game and Fish Thursday as part of continuing efforts to recover the endangered species. They were raised at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado.
Most of the ferrets were kits, some as young as two months old, alongside a few adults. Each had to prove it was capable of surviving in the wild by killing a prairie dog prior to its release.
“They all go through conditioning,” Nelson said.
Each was released at the mouth of an active prairie dog hole. Prairie dogs make up about 90 percent of a ferret’s diet, while their vacant burrows provide shelter.
The black-footed ferret, a member of the weasel family, was thought to be extinct in the 1950s and was one of the first animals to be named under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1981, a ranch dog discovered a ferret population on a ranch near Meeteetse, sparking a recovery effort that continues today.
Ferrets and prairie dogs are susceptible to sylvatic plague and canine distemper, which can decimate populations, so the remaining ferrets were taken into captivity until their numbers were stronger and the diseases could be better controlled.
Biologists began breeding ferrets at a facility in Sybille Canyon before moving the operation to the Colorado facility in 2005. Shirley Basin was chosen as a release site for the new ferret population in part because of its large prairie dog population.
“It’s the very first ferret reintroduction site,” Nelson said.
The population has had its ups and downs because of plague outbreaks, but the most recent surveys turned up seven litters.
“Several of those were in places where we haven’t seen ferrets over the last couple years,” Nelson said. “The prairie dog numbers are great, so we’re optimistic.”
Game and Fish began releasing ferrets near Meeteetse in 2016. Other populations live in South Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Utah.
Captive-raised ferrets are now vaccinated for plague and distemper, while wild-born ferrets receive vaccinations if they’re picked up during annual surveys.
Biologists release the ferrets in the fall because that’s when wild-born kits, born in the spring, are also dispersing and looking for new homes.
“It’s a great time to put kits on the landscape,” Nelson said.
At a recent meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Federal Natural Resource Management Committee in Laramie, an attorney representing several ranchers near the Thunder Basin National Grassland urged the U.S. Forest Service to drop its hopes of one day reintroducing ferrets on the federal land in the Powder River Basin.
Attorney Karen Budd-Falen argued the area was no longer suitable for ferret reintroduction because of the presence of plague in the prairie dog population there. Landowners want the Forest Service to reduce prairie dog numbers so they can increase grazing.
The conversation is an example of the ongoing conflict about the presence of prairie dogs on rangeland, as some ranchers claim they reduce the amount of forage available for cattle, leave behind dangerous holes and transmit diseases. Prairie dogs are also critical for supporting the rarest mammal in North America.
Nelson said landowner and community support — such as they have in the Shirley Basin — is a necessary component for black-footed ferret reintroduction.
“Having private landowners who are so patient with us is amazing,” she said. “Not all ranchers would be.”