January 5, 2011 | 3
Extinction, as any child in elementary school knows, is forever—never again shall we see the likes of the dodo, Tasmanian tiger, or passenger pigeon. Once every individual of a species is dead, there is no coming back.
Extinction is too often a sad and familiar tale of humans changing a habitat for their needs, while simultaneously destroying the environment that took evolution millions of years to shape. It is a storyline that has played out throughout our lives, and continues to this day.
This is not one of those stories.
While the topic of endangered species is usually not a happy one, there are success stories of animals coming back from the brink. The trick is finding them – a topic I took on for my Masters of Journalism degree.
Back in the summer of 2009, I boarded a plane from my hometown of Toronto to fly to Rapid City, South Dakota with the sole purpose of capturing footage of a rare animal that was thought to be extinct: the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes).
The ferrets were labeled extinct in the wild during the 1960s from over-hunting and farmers killing the ferrets’ primary food source, prairie dogs. But, a small population of 18 adults was found in Wyoming in the early 80s, and all the individuals alive today owe their existence to that single colony.
Since then, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been working to return the animals to their historical range, which has included populations in Canada and Mexico, with some success.
If only I had known what I was getting into.
The Longest Night
The goal for tracking ferrets for scientific and research purposes is a laborious and time-consuming process, but is vitally important. Each population needs to be closely monitored for disease, the availability of food, reproductive rates, and more, because the slightest hiccup could snowball into another disaster for the already genetically bottlenecked population.
Since black-footed ferrets live in open plains, the only way to find them is by driving in a grid pattern in a specially modified jeep that has a large spotlight on the roof. As you drive, you swing the spotlight back and forth, looking for the signature green eye-shine of the ferrets when they poke their heads out of their burrows. You then speed up and plant a humane trap at the mouth of the burrow, along with a reflector so that you can find it later in the pitch-black darkness, and hope that when you return, a ferret has been caught.
The main problem is waiting for a sign that the ferrets are out there, which can take a long time.
I set out at 7 p.m. from a centralized location in Canata Basin in Badlands National Park (one of the most successful ferret re-introduction sites in North America), located approximately two hours out from Rapid City, South Dakota.
The flat land stretches out for miles around, ending in the great mountain ranges of the park. It is a breathtaking sight, and yet daunting, for the ferrets live in underground burrows, which understandably makes them very difficult to find.
I got into one of three trucks sent out that night with Travis Livieri, my guide and contact with the USFWS who has helped set up the ferret programs all over the United States, Canada and Mexico.
We drove in serpentine lines in our assigned area of the badlands in order to cover it as systematically as possible: head east for a few miles until a fenced-off barrier, make a U-turn and head west for a few more miles, then head south for a few hundred feet before turning west and doing it again. And again. And again.
Livieri has been working with ferrets for many years, and knows almost everything there is to know about them. Not only does he track ferrets, he is also in charge of handling, testing and identifying all the animals caught in Canata Basin.
“They’re out there,” he said in the pitch-black as we made our way to a different starting position. "Some days you can see one in the first few minutes, the next night, you may not see any … it’s the luck of the draw."
Three hours of driving in the pitch black and the only animals I had seen were grasshoppers, and one amusingly fat badger that slowly waddled away.
And then, a flash of emerald green!
Livieri pressed on the gas and the car lurched forward a hundred or so meters, before an abrupt halt. He jumped out of the truck and grabbed a trap from the back. I grabbed my flashlight and camera, looking on eagerly.
Alas, nothing. Not a ferret in sight.
Livieri placed a trap and reflector near the entrance to the burrow in case any ferrets would use that burrow tonight, and we moved along.
This pattern of long stretches of driving interspersed with second of excitement continued for another few hours, where we continuously drove around looking for ferrets while laying and checking traps.
Finally, Livieri went back to the medical trailer to await the other teams (who had apparently caught one ferret each) and handed me over to Nick Anderson, who placed around six traps in his grid.
"Hopefully, you’ll get more luck with him than with me," said Livieri, wryly smiling before heading off to the small trailer to prepare for the rest of the night’s work.
After an hour with Anderson, who has been catching ferrets on a part-time basis for five years, we checked his traps. And, lo and behold, in the bottom of a trap was a ferret. The first I’d ever seen in the wild.
It was small, about as big as a forearm, with a black mask around its eyes like a raccoon. It resembled a weasel, but with light-beige fur, a black stripe arcing down its back, and black paws.
Finally seeing the animal after so much planning was beyond words. After all, this was an animal that was thought to be extinct just 30 years ago, but thanks to conservation efforts, it is flourishing.
This gives me hope that other animals in the same situation can overcome seemingly insurmountable problems thanks to the dedication and co-operation between people, organizations and governments.
Placing the ferret in a black plastic tube, Anderson passed it to me as he began driving us back to the cabin. The animal was surprisingly quiet, but did make the occasional hissing sounds that brought to mind documentaries I had seen of alligators warning the cameraman against getting too close.
Back in the trailer, Livieri anesthetized the ferret and placed a microchip underneath the skin in its neck. He also drew blood for DNA, removed ticks and mites, and vaccinated it against plague and canine distemper, which are wreaking havoc on the re-introduced populations.
Lastly, Livieri colored the underside of the ferret’s neck with a green marker.
"This is so that we can identify them on sight in the wild," said Livieri as he drew a large green triangle on the underside of the ferret’s neck. "It saves us time in the trucks if we can identify them on sight."
Once the ferret woke from its drug-induced sleep, Anderson and I took it back to its original burrow. I was fortunate enough to be the one to release the animal, which paused for a moment before it re-entered its burrow, allowing me to capture the moment on film.
And with that, the sun began to appear over the horizon, and the day’s hunt was over. In total, the entire team caught six ferrets, which according to Livieri is very good.
The time was 6:30 a.m., so I returned to my hotel and immediately went to bed, as I had been up for over 26 hours straight. I’m fairly certain I fell asleep before my head even touched the pillow, as the work is that tiring.
More of the Same
The next evening went along in a similar fashion to the previous night, as I quickly got in the truck with Livieri for a few hours before being traded to Anderson again like a baseball card.
"This is what we do," said Anderson with a grin. "Every night is the same method and it can get very boring. But, we’re not doing it because it’s fun, we do it because these animals depend on us."
That was the most surprising thing – these workers for the USFWS spend their nights in a dark and not very stimulating environment in order to track down ferrets for the sole purpose of helping this species survive. They don’t do it for the glory of the job or the recognition, but to help an animal regain part of what it has lost.
The night progresses without much luck, as we see a few ferrets in the distance, but catch zero. In fact, only one ferret was caught the entire night, which is not uncommon, according to Anderson.
On my way back to the hotel at 6 a.m. the following morning, Anderson agreed to take me on a tour of the National Park during the day, so that I might see some of the other wildlife that shares the land with the black-footed ferret.
Within a few minutes of driving along the path, we heard a high-pitched squeak emanating from what appeared to be tiny offspring of groundhogs and squirrels – the prairie dog, the ferret’s main source of food.
Not only that, but once a ferret kills a prairie dog, it usurps the burrow. That is one of the main reasons the ferrets were endangered, as farmers poisoned massive amounts of prairie dogs because they were viewed as a menace to fields and crops, and this resulted in the ferrets losing out on both food and shelter.
Along with that came increases in cases of canine distemper and a variant of the bubonic plague known as sylvatic plague, both of which are lethal to ferrets.
In fact, the prevention of plague is one of the main facets of the reintroduction effort. It is a three-pronged approach: testing ferret when caught, killing fleas through chemical means, and utilizing an experimental vaccine against plague on the ferrets.
And yet, despite all the struggles that the ferrets have faced and will encounter in the future, what has been done is nothing short of miraculous.
"We came from 18 individuals to now having about a thousand in the wild," said Liveri. "We’ve come a long way, and we’re making progress every year."
"We will [fully] recover this species … someday."
About the Author: David Manly is a Canadian freelance science journalist, who holds degrees in Biology and Zoology, as well as a Masters of Journalism. He has worked with dozens of animals in his career as a scientist, and now spends a lot of time writing about the wondrous world of animals for Lab Spaces, as well as for his own blog The Definitive Host, and you can always find him on Twitter (his handle is @davidmanly). When he’s not writing, you can usually find him reading a good book or watching one of the countless animal documentaries that he owns. You can find the whole story on his Masters research project entitled: "Back from the brink: The story of the North American black-footed ferret," online here.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.