Stalled reintroduction plans limit prairie dogs’ management

Landowners near the Thunder Basin National Grassland are urging the U.S. Forest Service to drop its hopes of one day reintroducing black-footed ferrets to the region.

USFS managers have been hesitant to poison prairie dogs in the landscape, in part, because the region has been targeted as habitat to eventually support the species once extinct in the wild. Ferret predation requires large numbers of prairie dogs.

“Because the possibility that ferrets may be reintroduced is dangling out there, the Forest Service is not managing the land,” attorney Karen Budd-Falen said Wednesday at the Legislature’s Federal Natural Resource Management Committee meeting in Laramie. Budd-Falen represents several ranchers in the region. Black-footed ferrets occupy just one region of Wyoming — Shirley Basin, which straddles the northwest edge of Albany County. Thunder Basin National Grassland is located in northeast Wyoming and is overseen by the Laramie USFS office.

Prairie dogs are prey for ferrets and their population in the national grassland grew beyond sustainable levels until 2017, when sylvatic plague began decimating the population.

Denise Langley, a landowner in the region, predicts the plague means ferrets will never be able to be introduced to the grassland — even if the prairie dogs are wiped out.

A 2017 study by Washington State University found the plague can persist in soils for years.

“There’s really no way you can treat for the plague out there,” she said.

Budd-Falen urged legislators Wednesday to push federal officials to drop their ferret hopes in favor of greater prairie dogs management.

“It’s totally an untenable situation for these ranchers,” she said.

The prairie dog infestation means a loss of forage and Budd-Falen said landowners have drastically reduced their livestock herd as result.

In 2016 and 2017, Budd-Falen estimates the Thunder Basin prairie dogs cost ranchers $1.4 million.

Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of wildlife for Wyoming Game and Fish, said there still is some support among landowners for ferret re-introduction.

Kristy Bly, wildlife conservation biologist for the World Wildlife Fund, said she thinks the plague won’t prevent ferrets from being introduced, but she “acknowledges that there have been some serious changes on the landscape” and there are “soil conditions and climate conditions out there that will never bring the grassland back.”

In 1994, the ferret breeding program was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which made releases at Thunder Basin a priority.

A 2017 report by the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute recommended greater efforts to remove prairie dogs, especially in conflict areas and sage grouse habitat.

In November 2017, U.S. agencies signed a statement saying an imminent reintroduction of ferrets is not appropriate and the agencies should focus on controlling prairie dog diseases and population boundaries.

Tyler Abbott, USFWS supervisor for the Wyoming office, said Wednesday there is no possibility of ferrets being reintroduced until there is greater community support and improvement of the habitat.

“Without (community support), we don’t have any interest in reintroducing ferrets into that area,” he said. “If it’s not a healthy grassland, there’s not going to be ferrets.”

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