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Black-footed ferrets to be restored to two ranches

Jun 7, 2016 By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE (AP) -- Wildlife officials hope this summer to restore a population of black-footed ferrets to a pair of western Wyoming ranches where the species, for a time believed extinct, was rediscovered in the wild 35 years ago.

The 35 ferrets released will be among as many as 220 captive-bred ferrets released in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Kansas this year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service breeds the ferrets at a facility outside Fort Collins in northern Colorado.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department plans to release its allocation of young ferrets July 26 on the adjoining Pitchfork and Lazy BV ranches in western Wyoming.

A member of the weasel family, the black-footed ferret easily ranks among the most charismatic endangered species. Long and sleek, they are nocturnal and resemble masked robbers because of the black splotches around their eyes.

They live in vast colonies of prairie dogs, upon which they prey and depend on for food. Typically cattle ranchers out West do their best to poison off prairie dogs to prevent pasture damage.

That hasn't been the case lately on the Pitchfork and Lazy BV. There, Wyoming Game and Fish has been experimenting with feeding prairie dogs plague vaccine and dusting the rodents' burrows with insecticide. Plague, a disease carried by fleas, is among the top killers of prairie dogs.

"We are doing what we can to make sure that these ferrets are going into healthy prairie dog colonies," said Zack Walker, the department's non-game bird and mammal supervisor.

Biologists for several years had thought the black-footed ferret extinct until a dog named Shep brought one home on the Lazy BV in 1981. Scientists captured all the remaining ferrets they could find from the nearby Pitchfork about 40 miles east of Yellowstone National Park.

The rounded-up ferrets helped establish the federal captive-breeding program that has released hundreds of ferrets into the Western U.S., including the Shirley Basin in southeast Wyoming, since the early 1990s. The process of preparing young ferrets, called kits, for release includes training them to hunt prairie dogs.

"They're actually put out in a kind of realistic burrow situation. They're fed prairie dogs and try to learn to hunt them themselves," Walker said.

Biologists also plan to release black-footed ferrets this year at six locations in Colorado, including the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, as well as to the Crow Reservation in Montana and Butte Creek Ranches in Kansas.

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