Saving the Black-Footed Ferret

Policy Reforms and Private Sector Incentives

by Karl Hess, Jr.

Research Paper Number 32
The Thoreau Institute

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • The Making of an Endangered Species
  • Last-Ditch Efforts to Save the Black-Footed Ferret
  • Barriers to Ferret Recovery
  • Policy Reform & Private Sector Incentives
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Interviews

    Executive Summary

    One hundred years ago, between one million and six million black-footed ferrets thrived in the prairies of the Great Plains and the Intermountain West. But at the end of 1985, only eighteen were left, making it North America's rarest mammal.

    Since then, federal and state agencies have spent at least $12 million trying to save this member of the weasel family. From the ten survivors they have successfully bred hundreds of ferrets in zoos and captive breeding facilities. But attempts to reestablish the animal in the wild have, for the most part, failed.

    The black-footed ferret, prairie dog, and North American bison formed three important components of prairie ecosystems. The bison ate densely growing grasses, opening up the prairie to prairie dog colonization. The prairie dogs burrowed and churned the soil, promoting a diversity of grasses. The ferret hunted the prairie dogs, keeping their numbers from overpopulating the plains.

    Today, the plains bison have been exterminated--the only surviving bison are probably a mountain variety. The prairie dog has been reduced to 2 percent of its original range. And the ferret is on the verge of extinction.

    At first glance, this seems to be just another story of greedy and selfish people working in a free market and conflicting with the natural world. But close scrutiny reveals that nearly all of the factors leading to the ferrets troubles are due to poorly designed government laws and policies.

    A History of Government Failure

    The story began more than a century ago, when Europeans first started settling the plains. American tradition and common law held that wildlife were owned by the people, and individuals could not own them while the wildlife lived. Once dead, individuals could claim them for their use. This meant that if someone captured a bull and cow bison and raised calves, anyone else could shoot the calves and claim them for their own. This gave people no incentive to do anything but shoot the bison.

    The bison were replaced by cattle and other livestock, introduced "domestic" species which by American tradition and common law could be owned by individuals. Someone shooting calves of domestic cattle that belonged to someone else could be prosecuted for rustling as easily, and sometimes with less sympathy, as someone who robbed banks.

    So one government policy was largely responsible for the extinction of the plains bison and its replacement by cattle and other domestic livestock. Another government policy gave the owners of that livestock a powerful incentive to overgraze much of the land in the West.

    The Homestead Act allowed settlers to claim 160 acres--but rarely any more--for their own use. But in the arid West 160 acres was far too few to allow a viable farm or livestock operation. Livestock owners could graze their cattle on adjacent unclaimed land. But since this unclaimed land was a "commons" open to any livestock, ranchers often had no choice but to overgraze; otherwise, someone else would come along--often a transient sheep herd--and overgraze the land.

    Overgrazing reduced the productivity of the land for livestock, either by erosion or by replacing grasses favored by livestock with plants that were less nutritious. But a side effect of overgrazing was an expansion in prairie dog colonies, which grew to cover nearly 700 million acres. Presumably, the black-footed ferret also benefited, and its numbers at this time may have approached six million.

    This trend was reversed when a 1902 government research study tragically confused cause and effect and blamed the decline in productivity on prairie dogs. Ranchers went on the warpath against prairie dogs, and since most overgrazing was on public land they soon convinced policy makers that the public should fund prairie dog control.

    The U.S. Biological Survey (now known as the animal damage control program of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) started a prairie dog extermination campaign that was joined by public land agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and even the Park Service. By 1960, prairie dogs were gone from 99 percent of their historic range.

    In the meantime, the Forest Service and BLM controlled overgrazing, generally by allowing only one rancher to graze any given portion of public range. This effectively eliminated the problem of the commons. But it substituted a new one when ranchers found that they could increase their levels of grazing (or avoid reductions) by getting the public to pay for range "improvements." Among those improvements were further poisonings of prairie dogs.

    Passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act created a new set of misincentives. The act purported to give the recovery of endangered species first priority over all other government programs. The Fish & Wildlife Service had recognized that the ferret was endangered even before the law was passed. But rather than use its newly enacted power to stop the prairie dog poisonings that were the real threat to the ferret--something that may have been legally feasible but politically impractical--the agency focused exclusively on attempts to protect and breed individual ferrets.

    The Ferret's Last Hope

    By 1979, the last known ferrets had died of distemper. Even as other federal agencies continued to eradicate prairie dogs, the Fish & Wildlife Service promoted a major survey to find a few more living ferrets. A new group of ferrets were found not by any government survey but by a Wyoming dog who brought a dead ferret to its owner. The owner, not recognizing the animal, contacted local wildlife biologists.

    This last hope for the ferret soon waned due to a new set of government blunders. First, federal agents threatened to prosecute the owner of the dog who found the ferret, thus discouraging other people from reporting other ferrets in the area. Biologists found one colony of about 50 ferrets but many believe that local residents had seen, but did not report, other ferrets.

    While this one colony seemed healthy, biologists warned against keeping all the ferrets in one figurative basket--suggesting instead that some of the ferrets be captured, bred, and their kits released to recolonize another area. Yet government agencies did little other than monitor the colony until, in 1985, a new epidemic nearly wiped it out. Only eighteen individuals were rescued.

    Over the next several years, those eighteen successfully bred several hundred more in captivity. But attempts to release ferrets in the wild met with two obstacles. First, most ranchers resisted proposals to introduce ferrets in their vicinity, fearing that the release would reduce the ranchers' ability to control prairie dogs.

    Second, even when released the ferrets did not do well. This was partly because--due to rancher protests--the ferrets were released in less-than-optimal areas. But it was mainly because--due to budget limits--government agencies were unable to raise kits in an environment where they could learn to avoid predators. As a result, more than 90 percent of the released ferrets were eaten by predators or killed by disease.

    While biologists consider the captive breeding program a success, its cost to date is close to $40,000 per ferret. When only released survivors are counted the cost may be well over $1 million per animal. These costs will fall as initial capital expenses are amortized over more ferrets, but budgets are also likely to fall--possibly threatening the entire program.

    Ironically, equally large sums of money are being spent by energy companies and other public land users in a search--so far futile--for more ferrets along proposed pipeline rights of way and other projects on federal lands. Priorities seem misplaced when huge sums are spent searching for nonexistent ferrets and breeding ferrets that turn into coyote food while, at the same time, other branches of the government continue their relentless destruction of prairie dogs and, therefore, potential ferret habitat.

    A Question of Habitat

    The black-footed ferret's primary problem is not one of numbers but of habitat. Moreover, the ferret is only one of several rare species that depend on prairie-dog ecosystems; others include the mountain plover, the ferruginous hawk, the swift fox, and the prairie dog itself. Increasing ferret habitat will benefit these species as well.

    The main obstacle to ferret habitat is rancher opposition. A case could be made that greedy ranchers are unethically placing their own interests above those of the ferrets. But it is equally valid to conclude that the ranchers are merely responding to misincentives created by a long series of inept government policies. In a confrontation between ethics and incentives, incentives almost always win because they are universal while ethics apply only to those who hold them. If "ethics" is the concern, would it not be most ethical to design a system that doesn't require ranchers, and others, to choose between personal interest and ferret recovery?

    Designing such a system will require a major overhaul of federal public land and agricultural programs--an overhaul that is overdue in any case and that is already being contemplated by members of Congress. To participate in this overhaul, endangered species advocates must recognize that the major threat to species like the ferret is not greedy ranchers but bad government policies--including policies relating to grazing, animal damage control, public land management, and the Endangered Species Act itself.


    Based on these ideas, this report recommends reforms of the ferret recovery program, federal grazing programs, federal and local tax policies, the Endangered Species Act, and state wildlife programs. Following are the most important recommendations.

    Black-Footed Ferret Recovery

    To date, the recovery program has been successful in breeding quantities of ferrets, but ferrets released into the wild have been slaughtered by predators and disease.

    Federal Grazing and Public Land Management

    The key to maintaining and expanding prairie-dog ecosystems and ferret habitat is the reform of federal grazing and public rangeland policies.

    Federal and Local Tax Policies

    Current tax policy encourages the fragmentation of habitat for prairie dogs and many other rare and endangered species. A new tax could also be used to allow those who poison prairie dogs to effectively promote prairie dog habitat in spite of themselves.

    The Endangered Species Act

    On its face, the Endangered Species Act has enormous legal power. But the ferret has proven that legal power on paper is meaningless when challenging cold political reality. An improved law would create positive incentives for protecting endangered species and other elements of biodiversity.

    State Wildlife Policies

    The most successful recovery of endangered species in history came about when states started managing elk, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife as game. Ferrets are not potential game in the near future, but prairie dogs are.


    The Endangered Species Act is one of the noblest laws ever passed by any legislative body. It is also one of the most contentious. Are wildlife more important than jobs? What are the rights of animals vs. the rights of property owners? Is government guilty of taking property without compensation if it charges landowners with taking wildlife habitat?

    For those who support endangered species, more pertinent questions might include: Is the law even working at protecting species? If not, how should the law be changed to improve species recovery? Can those changes be made compatible with the goals of the law's critics?

    To address these questions, the Thoreau Institute, working in cooperation with Defenders of Wildlife, selected a few species for intense study. The first of these is the black-footed ferret. This report answers the following important questions:

    The recommendations in this report are all aimed at improving the likelihood of ferret recovery. They range from alterations in the captive breeding program to proposals to change federal tax policy. But many of the proposals are more general, and their implementation would benefit numerous rare and endangered species.

    The Making of an Endangered Species

    Beginnings: The Prairie Dog Ecosystem

    Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the western United States, prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) were nearly ubiquitous. Their colonies stretched east to west from the high plains to the intermountain regions of the Rocky Mountains and north to south from the Canadian prairies to the Mexican Chihuahaun Desert.

    Merriam (1902) estimated that five species of prairie dogs, most notably black-tailed (C. ludovicianus), white-tailed (C. leucurus) and Gunnison (C. gunnisonii), occupied over 250 million acres of arid rangeland in the late 1800s. Other estimates range as high as 692 million acres (USDI, 1988). A single colony of prairie dogs in Texas is reported to have covered a swath 250 miles long and nearly 100 miles wide (Roemer, 1995). Whether large or small, prairie dog colonies are part of an extensive network of biological relationships, an ecosystem of striking richness and far-ranging complexity.

    At the heart of the prairie dog ecosystem are the soil and plant effects arising from prairie dog burrowing and grazing. Through vigorous churning of soils and grazing-induced changes in vegetation composition and structure (USDI, 1993), prairie dogs enhance the biological diversity of the grassland biome. In particular, their physical and biological impacts help sustain short-grass prairies (Uresk, 1987 and USDI, 1993), maintain patchy plant associations vital to wildlife (Uresk, 1987), enrich the diversity of prairie flora (Clark, 1986b), increase the nutritional quality of forage for grazing animals (Roemer, 1995, Sharps, 1990, and USDI, 1993), and expand grassland productivity (Uresk, 1983).

    Historically, bison migrated and grazed in close association with major prairie dog colonies (BYU, 1986 and Clark, 1995). Today, bison at the Wind Caves National Park continue to preferentially graze prairie dog colonies, proving by their foraging behavior the vital role of prairie dogs in sustaining wild ungulate habitat (USDI, 1993).

    Studies in South Dakota and Montana reinforce the importance of prairie dogs to wildlife. South Dakota researchers counted 134 vertebrate wildlife species dependent on prairie dog colonies (Sharps, 1990), and they observed bird densities 200 to 250 percent greater on black-tailed prairie dog colonies as compared to non-prairie dog areas.

    Similarly, BLM wildlife biologists in Montana surveyed over a 100 bird and mammal species which rely on the prairie dog ecosystem for food and shelter (Clark, 1986b). Pronghorn, for example, are grassland ungulates that prefer non-grass species--such as broad-leaved forbs--in their diets. Prairie dog colonies produce an abundance of forbs because of prairie dog selectivity for grass and the disturbance patches created by their burrowing activity. As a result, pronghorn are able to find a diversity and abundance of forage in prairie dog colonies that is missing from non-impacted portions of the grassland biome.

    Lastly, entomological studies show just how far the prairie dog influence extends into ecosystem structure and function: insect abundance and richness are greatest in prairie dog impacted areas. Seen in its ecological complexity, "the prairie dog community supports higher numbers of small mammals and arthropods, more terrestrial predators, higher avian species diversity [and] density than surrounding areas" (USDI, 1993).

    Among the many ecological services provided by prairie dogs, the most important from a species-conservation perspective is the habitat they provide to threatened and endangered plants and mammals. Prairie dog colonies provide critical environment for the mountain plover (Charadrius montanus), the ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), the swift fox (Vulpes velox) and, most importantly, the black-footed ferret. The ferret, in turn, is an obligate associate of the prairie dog landscape--it is unable to survive independent of prairie dog communities. Over 95 percent of its diet comes from feeding on prairie dogs. Moreover, the black-footed ferret uses prairie dog burrows as its sole source for shelter, nesting, and the rearing of young.

    Given the close biological and ecological ties between ferrets and prairie dogs, it is understandable why the historic range of the black-footed ferret overlaps so closely with the historic range of the white-tailed, black-tailed and Gunnison prairie dogs. Confirmed sightings and ferret specimens collected since the mid-1880s place the black-footed ferret in almost every grassland habitat in the high plains and intermountain regions of the West, from the southern prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta to the plains and desert areas of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona (see Figure 1). Pleistocene ferret skeletal materials found in Chihuahua suggest that the black-footed ferret was also present in northern Mexico during recent times.

    Scientists have used the acreage of the ferret's potentially far-ranging habitat and the actual measurements of its population density at Meeteetse, Wyoming, to calculate a plausible past population estimate. According to the best data available, anywhere from 1 to 5.6 million black-footed ferrets occupied the vast prairie dog colonies that characterized the pre-Anglo, pre-settlement America West (BYU, 1986 and USDI, 1988).

    The Era of Eradication

    Anglo settlement in the West was preceded by a major ecological event: the near-elimination of bison from the prairies and deserts of the western range. For the prairie dog, the disappearance of bison was potentially cataclysmic. It meant the loss of an essential element in the functioning of its ecosystem--the tens of millions of large ungulates whose specialty in the past had been opening up and sustaining prairie dog colonization on otherwise dense and inhospitable grasslands.

    Drought and fire would continue to create some of the open spaces needed for prairie dog expansion. Yet, without the intensive seasonal grazing, wallowing, and trampling of bison, the single greatest source of grassland disturbance and prairie dog habitat would simply vanish from the grassland biome (USDA, 1989). Prairie dogs would be unable, without the symbiotic aid of the bison, to create sufficient bare ground and hedged vegetation to maintain their extensive colonies.

    As a result, the prairie dog ecosystem would shrink from its historic range, particularly on the tall and mixed grass prairies of the Dakotas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas (1989b). Vigorous and unhampered grass growth would literally smoother the life from prairie dog colonies whose ecological niche lay in open horizons and mostly bare, disturbed ground (Sharps, 1990, Uresk, 1980 and 1987, and USDI, 1993).

    Prairie dogs, however, had little to worry about. As bison faded from the scene, a new herbivore entered the picture: cattle. By the late 1880s, the West was cattle kingdom pure and simple, stretching from the Nebraska-Kansas plains to the crest of the Sierra-Nevada. Long-horns, followed later by the short-horned breeds of Hereford and Angus, virtually replaced--and in some places surpassed--the historic numbers of bison which had once roamed and grazed the West's grasslands. Overgrazing became endemic, stripping verdant ranges of their vegetation and exposing fragile arid soils to the relentless processes of wind and water erosion (O'Toole, 1994b).

    Prairie dog populations that had once covered many tens of millions of acres in the pre-settlement West expanded almost overnight as livestock assumed with unparalleled energy the task of creating vast, heavily grazed open spaces for the proliferation of prairie dog colonies. For a few brief years, the prairie dog ecosystem actually expanded under the regime of domestic livestock (Clark, 1995 and USDA, 1989). Indeed, the various estimates of prairie dog-impacted acres for the late 1800s--ranging from 250 to 692 million acres--reflect more the exaggerated, short-term influence of cattle than the less severe, yet longer-term influence of migrating herds of bison.

    Prairie dog expansion, regionally advertised and highlighted by a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that reported prairie dog colonies reducing range productivity by as much as 75 percent, elicited a massive reaction in the West (Merriam, 1902 and USDI, 1988). By 1910, private use of strychnine bait and extensive plowing of high plains grasslands--especially in Kansas and Oklahoma--had already shrunk the historic range of the prairie dog to a mere 100 million acres. In the years that followed, federal and state actions did their best to completely eliminate prairie dogs.

    By the time the prairie dog killing frenzy had at last wound down in 1960, only 2 to 5 percent of the 1910 prairie dog acreage and less than 1 percent of the estimated historic prairie dog range still supported thriving colonies (Roemer, 1995 and USDI, 1993).

    Black-footed ferrets suffered most in the federal campaign against prairie dogs. Ralph Block, an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, participated in the poisoning of almost 150,000 acres of prime prairie dog habitat between 1947 and 1964. During that period, he observed 13 black-footed ferrets--a remarkable number given the animal's furtiveness, and the scarcity of sightings by other biologists of the time (Clark, 1989a and BYU, 1986). Nonetheless, his actions and those of his colleagues in the Fish and Wildlife Service's animal damage control program set the forces of extinction in motion.

    Prairie dog control had as its primary effect not the elimination of prairie dogs but the serious reduction and fragmentation of the prairie dog ecosystem. Prior to control, prairie dog colonies formed broad landscape complexes in which black-footed ferrets--and their genetic material--could readily move and mix. These complexes provided population stability by shielding the black-footed ferret from otherwise cataclysmic local disease and predation outbreaks.

    For example, an estimated 150,000 black-footed ferrets occupied the Montana prairie dog range in the years between 1908 and 1914. The Montana range, in turn, was made up of large complexes of prairie dog colonies, providing what biologists now agree was high-quality black-footed ferret habitat--"a habitat setting in which black-footed ferrets evolved among the complex interrelationships of species and environmental interactions of the prairie dog ecosystem (BYU, 1986)."

    Strychnine, zinc, and aluminum phosphides, and Compound 1080 changed all of that. By reducing the number, size and distribution of prairie dog colonies and complexes of colonies, the federally subsidized poisons spelled disaster for the black-footed ferret.

    First, fewer prairie dogs and prairie dog colonies meant less food and shelter for the black-footed ferret. Less habitat, in turn, meant a drastic reduction in ferret numbers, putting the residual population at increased risk of cataclysmic exposure to diseases such as distemper.

    Second, the federal poisoning campaign undermined the ecological resiliency of the prairie dog ecosystem. It made the small and scattered prairie dog remnants more susceptible to disease (such as plague) and catastrophic events. Where before such events might have affected only a portion of an extensive prairie dog complex, now they were devastating when focused on the insular fragments of the once vast prairie dog ecosystem.

    For black-footed ferrets, of course, massive die-offs of their prairie dog prey translated into certain death. They could no longer migrate to healthier portions of a more expansive prairie dog complex. Bereft of an alternative food source, and forced to spend increased time outside of their burrows in search of sustenance, they simply perished through starvation or increased predation.

    Worse yet, fragmentation and reduction of prairie dog habitat cut ferrets off from neighboring populations, curtailing genetic flow and diminishing genetic diversity within the species. Like their prairie dog prey, their populations became insular and more susceptible to disease and other catastrophic events (USDI, 1993).

    In all, the forces of habitat reduction and fragmentation made the black-footed ferret a prime if not inevitable candidate for protection and recovery under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Indeed, population data now available on the black-footed ferret suggest that as early as 1940 the species was already on the brink of extinction.

    "After 1940," write Tom Thorne and Bob Oakleaf of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, "extirpated populations could not be re-established by normal dispersal from remaining populations, owing to extensive habitat fragmentation. . . . Extinction of black-footed ferrets was probably inevitable without extensive intervention" (1991).

    Their conclusion, pessimistic but painfully realistic, merely echoed the growing consensus among conservation biologists that "on average, a small, isolated black-footed ferret population does not long survive." It gave scientific validity and tragic finality to "the extremely low probability that any unknown black-footed ferret populations remain in the wild" (Thorne, 1991).

    Last-Ditch Efforts to Save
    the Black-Footed Ferret

    The Endangered Species Act

    The plight of the black-footed ferret became a matter of federal concern and record with the passage of the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. Yet, other than listing the ferret as endangered, and encouraging studies of the species at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, the act did virtually nothing to reverse the species slide into extinction.

    Congress responded to the weakness and deficiencies of the 1966 act by next passing the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1969. That statute elevated the ferret to yet another federal list of endangered species, but beyond a second listing the new law offered little in the way of protection or mitigation for the disappearing ferret (Seal, 1989).

    All of that changed, however, with the subsequent passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the more-than-ceremonial listing of the black-footed ferret as endangered. Unlike earlier legislation, the 1973 act gave real muscle and direction to the cause of protecting endangered species such as the black-footed ferret. It continued the tradition of listing threatened and endangered species, but it also went much further; it set discrete steps to follow in the protection and recovery of imperiled species. The new law restricted the taking or killing of listed species, emphasized acquisition of habitat for species conservation, modestly funded federal and state species recovery efforts, placed restrictions on federal actions that could harm threatened or endangered species, and mandated the development and implementation of recovery plans for all listed species.

    More importantly, the 1973 act set a precedent in federal law making. In earlier legislation, Congress had directed federal agencies to provide species protection "where practicable." The Endangered Species Act changed the rules of the regulatory game by requiring federal agencies in the future to take "such action necessary to ensure that the actions authorized, funded or carried out by them do not jeopardize the continued existence of an endangered species." "With that order," notes environmental writer Rocky Barker, "Congress elevated protection of all species to one of the U.S. government's highest priorities (Barker, 1993).

    First Failure

    As federal species protection policy evolved in the 1960s and early 1970s, a ray of hope for the imperiled black-footed ferret arose on the South Dakota horizon. More than a century after their first description by John J. Audubon, a small yet scattered population of black-footed ferrets was found in 1964 on the Adrian Ranch in Mellette County, South Dakota (McNulty, 1971). Extensive follow-up surveys revealed a highly dispersed, low density population of ferrets distributed across at least eight South Dakota counties. In all, 90 black-footed ferrets were located, including an additional 38 young produced in 11 litters (Clark, 1994a and USDI, 1988).

    For seven years the South Dakota population was studied and monitored, elevating hopes that the black-footed ferret might yet be pulled from the edge of extinction. By 1971, however, the declining state of the black-footed ferret was sending waves of concern and alarm through the research community. No additional ferrets had been located in recent years. More ominous yet, ferret reproduction was not filling adjacent habitat. If anything , the black-footed ferret community was contracting and declining in numbers. On top of that, relations between the federal agencies and surrounding landowners were deteriorating rapidly.

    In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured six ferrets in late 1971 and transferred them to breeding facilities at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Four of the captured ferrets died after inoculation with a live-virus, distemper vaccine. Three more ferrets were captured and taken to the center during the next three years. Two litters were subsequently born in 1976 and 1977, but all ten of the ferret kits died at or shortly after birth. The last remaining captive black-footed ferret at Patuxent died in 1979 (USDI, 1988).

    At the same time that hopes for the ferret's recovery were waning in South Dakota, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began developing a recovery plan for the black-footed ferret. In 1974 the agency established a black-footed ferret recovery team to develop the plan, and in 1978 the Service approved the final product: the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan, the first set of guidelines in history designed solely for the protection and recovery of the species.

    The plan was deceptively simple. Only a handful of pages in length, its primary objective was to "maintain at least one wild self-sustaining population of black-footed ferrets in each state within its former range (USDI, 1978)." To reach that objective, the plan outlined a series of follow-up actions to be taken in the course of protection and recovery. Specifically, the plan prescribed 1) mapping of the historic range of the black-footed ferret; 2) inventory of current ferret habitat; 3) estimation of ferret populations past and present; 4) protection of existing ferret populations; and 5) restocking of ferret populations from captive-bred stock.

    Having a plan, however, was far from having a viable recovery program. With the death of the last known black-footed ferret in 1979, the Fish & Wildlife Service was left empty-handed. By necessity, it turned its recovery efforts to the frustrating chore of finding one more wild population of ferrets. Between 1978 and 1981, intensive surveys for ferrets continued in the western states under the direction of the Denver Wildlife Research Center.

    Because of funding shortages, most of the surveys were financed by the private sector or by other federal agencies with projects pending (coal mining, pipelines, etc.) that could potentially jeopardize the black-footed ferret and its habitat. Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies carrying out or authorizing such projects are required to survey impacted landscapes for the presence of listed species. In the case of the ferret, these mandated surveys provided a sizable share of the Fish & Wildlife Service's ferret recovery work--that is, until the early fall of 1981.

    Second Chance: Meeteetse's Ferrets

    Accident rather than design has propelled the course of ferret protection and recovery in the late 20th century. After nearly a decade of spending tens-of-thousands of federal dollars and as many private and public man-hours in the elusive hunt for the black-footed ferret, a dog belonging to Lucille Hogg, a cafe owner in Meeteetse, Wyoming, ended the search by delivering a dead ferret to its master's doorstep.

    Overnight, the ferret's fortune soared as the lands around Meeteetse were intensively surveyed. Using an array of search methods, including snow-tracking, spotlighting, and locating skeletal remains, scat, and ferret diggings, researchers identified--from 1981 through 1985--at least 282 individual ferrets distributed across 7,400 acres of white-tailed prairie dog habitat (BYU, 1986, Clark, 1989a,and Clark, 1994b, 1994c).

    Lacking adequate manpower, facilities, and funding, and being administratively distant from the ferret's northwestern Wyoming home, the Fish & Wildlife Service gladly gave the Wyoming Game and Fish Department lead agency status--and, in the process, granted to Wyoming wildlife biologists full control over Meeteetse's ferrets and the national ferret recovery program. Wyoming Game and Fish, in turn, proceeded cautiously. Its biologists, pleased by the apparent stability of the Meeteetse prairie dog and ferret population, saw no reason to risk a captive breeding program--particularly given past failures at Patuxent and the disturbing fact that ferrets had to date not been successfully bred and reared in captivity.

    Consequently, the department followed traditional procedures for dealing with remnant wildlife populations. For the next four years it simply monitored and studied from afar the small enclave of Meeteetse ferrets. Cooperating closely with Jack Turnell, the owner of the PitchFork Ranch where most of the ferrets were located, Wyoming biologists watched optimistically as the black-footed ferret population slowly rose from 61 individuals in 1982 to 129 in 1984. They were more than encouraged by reproduction rates which yielded 186 ferret young in just 3 years.

    Further, the prairie dog complex that contained the ferrets seemed healthy and diverse, covering over 50 square miles (approximately 30,000 acres) and supporting a total of 37 white-tailed prairie dog colonies. If the ferret could survive, it would be here on the dwindling remnants of a Meeteetse prairie dog ecosystem that in 1930 had encompassed almost 80,000 acres (BYU, 1986, Clark, 1994b, and USDI, 1988).

    But the Meeteetse ferrets were never as secure or well-off as state biologists assumed. Enthusiasm aside, the fact is that the Meeteetse black-footed ferret colony was small and isolated, and had in all probability suffered major swings in population in the recent past. More significantly, the probability of future population crashes--possibly catastrophic--were high given the theoretical vulnerability of Meeteetse's tiny ferret community to severe disease episodes and other stochastic environmental events.

    Adding certainty to probability was a growing body of demographic data on Meeteetse's ferrets suggesting that genetic diversity within their insular population had diminished by as much as 60% since 1930. Genetically cut off for 50 years--what amounts to 20 or 30 generations--Meeteetse's black-footed ferrets were not in the best condition to survive what had become a hostile environment of increasing predators and increasing frequencies of plague and distemper epidemics (Seal, 1989).

    The worst imaginable scenario happened in the summer of 1985. In June, sylvatic plague, a pathogen to which prairie dogs are highly susceptible, was found in the Meeteetse prairie dog-ferret complex. To kill disease-carrying fleas, prairie dog burrows were dusted with carbaryl. Despite thorough and repeated treatments, the prairie dog-ferret complex declined in acreage by 22 percent (USDI, 1988 and USDI, 1993).

    Making matters more desperate for biologists, the vital signs of the ferret population started falling at the same time. By July, Wyoming Game and Fish was able to count only 58 surviving ferrets, a finding made more troublesome by the sudden disappearance of black-footed ferret litters. After capturing and examining six ferrets in October, the answer to what was happening became painfully apparent: canine distemper was working its way methodically and fatally through the Meeteetse black-footed ferret enclave. Indeed, ferret numbers fell from 58 in August to 31 in September to 16 in October (Seal, 1989 and USDI, 1988).

    To save the ferret--at least for another round of recovery efforts--six ferrets were removed from the wild in October and November, and then in the summer of 1986 another five adults and two litters were found and captured. Subsequent captures in September 1986 and February 1987 increased the captive population of Meeteetse black-footed ferrets to a grand total of eighteen. For all practical purposes, these eighteen animals were the last live ferrets left in the world and the last realistic chance for ferret recovery in the western United States (Seal, 1989 and USDI, 1988).

    Trials and Tribulations of Ferret Recovery

    A Revised Recovery Plan

    The discovery of black-footed ferrets in Meeteetse spurred on a revision of the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan. Drafted initially in 1985, and then rewritten several times before its formal release in 1988, the new plan used the Meeteetse experience as a launching pad for a more exact and presumably achievable set of recovery goals. To ensure the survival and recovery of the black-footed ferret, the plan set forth three broad program objectives:

    1. Increasing the captive population of black-footed ferrets to a census size of 200 breeding adults by 1991;

    2. Establishing a prebreeding census population of 1,500 free-ranging black-footed ferret breeding adults in 10 or more populations with no fewer than 30 breeding adults in any population by the year 2010; and

    3. Encouraging the widest possible distribution of reintroduced black-footed ferret populations (USDI, 1988).

    Among the three program objectives only the first has been met; the remaining two lag far behind expectations. For the moment, however, the striking success of the captive breeding program has at least forestalled the ferret's extinction--an event judged otherwise inevitable given the low probability that ferrets still exist in the wild and the projections by wildlife biologists that even if they do, they would likely become extinct well before the end of the century (Thorne, 1991).

    Step 1: Captive Breeding

    The backbone of the ferret captive breeding program has from the onset been the Wyoming Game and Fish Sybille Research Facility. There, the first captive ferrets were birthed and raised. In the summer of 1987 two litters of six and two kits respectively were produced in captivity, and in the following year an additional 13 litters with 34 surviving young were added to boost the captive ferret population to 58 animals.

    In 1989, those 58 ferrets--this time at three breeding facilities: Sybille, the National Zoological Conservation and Research Center at Front Royal, Virginia, and the Henry Doorley Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska--produced an additional 24 litters, raising ferret numbers to 118. By the end of 1990, with the addition of breeding facilities at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs and the Louisville Zoological Gardens in Louisville, Kentucky, the captive ferret population reached 180. A year later, even higher reproduction rates pushed ferret numbers to 320, well above the breeding target set in the 1988 ferret recovery plan (Clark, 1994b).

    As of March, 1995, the captive breeding population of the black-footed ferret was 286 individuals (Thorne, 1995a). The largest number of them (126) are maintained at the Sybille Research Facility in Wyoming. Other captive breeding populations are located at the Henry Doorley Zoo (40), the National Zoo (12), the Louisville Zoo (36), the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (22), the Phoenix Zoo (28), and the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo (22).

    These figures include only ferrets now in residence at captive breeding facilities. Since 1991, an even greater number of captive-bred ferrets have been reared and released--ostensibly to meet the second and third objectives of the ferret recovery plan. A total of 410 ferrets have either been reintroduced into the wild or dedicated to non-breeding research and education (Thorne, 1995a). As impressive as these figures are, and as much as they say about the striking success of the captive breeding effort, the black-footed ferret recovery program overall is in serious trouble.

    Step 2: Reintroduction

    To date, only three of the projected 10 recovery areas have been identified and brought into the ferret recovery effort. The first site selected was the Shirley Basin/Medicine Bow reintroduction area in southeastern Wyoming (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1994a and WGF, 1991). It received the first contingent of captive ferrets in the fall of 1991, and since then a total of 228 ferrets have been released within its boundaries.

    The second site to come on line in the ferret recovery program was the Conata Basin/Badlands reintroduction area in southeastern South Dakota (USDA, 1994 and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1994a). Twenty-six ferrets were released into the Badlands National Park in the fall of 1994, and an additional 26 were released in the spring of 1995.

    The third site to be added to the recovery effort was the north-central Montana reintroduction area, centered around the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1994a and 1994b). Being the most recent addition to the ferret's habitat, only 40 black-footed ferrets have been released there to date.

    When all three reintroduction areas are considered together, a total of 304 black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced into what constitutes a small fragment of their former range--a range that likely sustained 0.5 to 1.5 million ferrets at one time (Gober, 1995).

    Three sites with over 300 ferrets is an impressive statistic when measured against the 18 ferrets salvaged from the disease-infested Meeteetse range. But there is more to success than mere reintroduction. Of the 304 ferrets released to date, less than seven percent--a bare 20 animals--have managed to stay alive.

    Wyoming: Plagued by Disease
    In Wyoming, just 10 of the original 228 black-footed ferrets released are known to have survived through the winter of 1994-95. Wyoming Game and Fish observed as early as the fall of 1994 that "the Shirley Basin ferrets may have suffered substantial losses [and] biologists with the program are still trying to figure out why the population dropped and whether there is a threat to ferrets released there in the future" (Madson, 1995).

    Making matters worse, Wyoming Game and Fish has only a rudimentary ferret-monitoring program in place in the Shirley basin. Estimates by department wildlife biologists, for example, suggest that as many as seven ferret litters have been born in the wild, but without solid monitoring data there is no way to know how many of the kits, if any, have survived.

    Sadly, kit-survival statistics may now be academic in the Shirley Basin. A severe outbreak of plague in the spring of 1995, wiping out 90 percent or more of prairie dog colonies in key reintroduction areas, appears to have crippled if not totally wiped out Wyoming's struggling black-footed ferret population (Gober, 1995, Luce, 1995, and Oakleaf, 1995).

    South Dakota: Eaten by Coyotes
    South Dakota's reintroduced ferrets are doing no better. Out of the original 36 ferrets released into the Badlands National Park in the fall of 1994, all but two or three are believed to have succumbed to predators. The fate of the surviving ferrets are unknown, the fault once again of grossly inadequate monitoring data. Further, all of the 26 ferrets released in the spring of 1995 into the Badlands National Park perished, victims in most cases of coyote predation.
    Montana: Marginal Success
    Montana's success is marginally better. Forty ferrets were released into the CMR Wildlife Refuge in the fall of 1994. Today, biologists estimate that as many as nine (a 20 percent rate) remain alive--a major success story when compared to the outcomes (a one percent survival rate) at Shirley Basin and Badlands National Park (Gober, 1995 and Hinckley, 1995).

    Every indicator points to the failure of the black-footed ferret recovery program. Apart from the success of the breeding program, the ferret remains light years away from being a viable and functioning member of the western prairie dog ecosystem. The best that can be said is that the ferret is a viable zoo animal--a more than likely permanent museum piece in America's zoological parks.

    This is not, nor was it ever, the purpose of the 1988 black-footed ferret recovery plan or the Endangered Species Act. The plan's agenda, mandated by the Endangered Species Act, was to make the ferret wild again, to seed it into ten major prairie dog complexes and then to propagate it into as many parts of its former range as possible. Yet the ferret is not even established in three reintroduction sites at this time.

    Despite the efforts of the Fish & Wildlife Service to find seven additional reintroduction areas, not one has been selected and brought on line for ferret reintroduction. Indeed, the prospects for widespread distribution of ferret seedings seem a pipe dream at best given the paltry success that federal agencies have had so far in reaching the original goal of ten free-ranging, self-sustaining black-footed ferret populations (Biggins, 1995 and Clark, 1995b).

    The ferret recovery program has not failed for lack of money. Federal and state agencies have spent over $12 million on the original 18 Meeteetse ferrets and their progeny, and the associated recovery and transplant efforts (Gober, 1995). When calculated in terms of ferrets grown for release, this comes to a cost of almost $40,000 for every ferret returned to the wild. When calculated in terms of surviving ferrets, the cost skyrockets to $600,000 to $1.5 million for every captive-bred ferret that still roams the prairies of Shirley Basin, the CMR, and the Badlands National Park.

    Clearly, the ferret cannot be saved without spending money. But the costs today are excessive, particularly given the near-certain budget cuts facing the Fish & Wildlife Service and its cooperating federal agencies. Even the more modest cost-estimate of $5,000 for every current and future captive-bred ferret is excessive (Clark, 1995a, Gober, 1995, Hinckley, 1995, and Thorne, 1995b). Such amounts are draining the financial resources of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and straining the budgetary capabilities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Recovery is simply not working: The black-footed ferret remains perched on the edge of extinction, seemingly fated to become little other than a zoological curiosity.

    Barriers to Ferret Recovery

    On the Road to Extinction

    Pete Gober is the man whose job is to save the black-footed ferret. As director of the Fish & Wildlife Service black-footed ferret recovery program, he coordinates and oversees ferret breeding, release, and protection in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and whatever other states that may be added to the list of reintroduction sites.

    Strangely, though, Gober is not enthused over the remarkable success biologists have had in breeding the elusive prairie dog predator. Despite a growing inventory of captive ferrets, he is starting to wonder about the wisdom of trying to save all of the parts. In particular, he has reached a depressing conclusion on the fate of the ferret: the furtive, masked carnivore is the wrong species at the wrong time. Public agencies simply "shouldn't bother with the ferret." The animal is too specialized biologically (reliant almost entirely on prairie dogs), and its habitat is too thoroughly fragmented, to justify the dollars and manpower that have so far been invested in its shaky restoration.

    Gober is not just concerned about the technical aspects of ferret reintroduction. Even under the best of conditions, the ferret's recovery would be an uphill battle against the vagaries of genetics, the certainties of predation, and the catastrophes of disease. And even if the biological barriers to recovery could be surmounted, there would still be the formidable task of finding and securing enough habitat to make the ferret a viable species again--an effort, Gober notes, severely complicated by incessant institutional bickering and the constant intrusion of politics into matters of biology.

    All things considered, the black-footed ferret was, he believes, the wrong species around which to focus the institutional might of the Endangered Species Act. The program has been neither cost-wise nor cost-effective. Further, even with ten sites--or even twenty--Gober fears that the long-term survival of the ferret will require perpetual intervention to supplement its population in the face of an environment that is no longer friendly and supportive. He is concerned that after decades of hard work, all that will be left of the ferret restoration effort will be a small number of ferret mini-zoos scattered across the ailing prairie dog landscape.

    In effect, the black-footed ferret will become a permanent environmental basket case. In the end, the recovery effort will amount to much ado about nothing--nothing, that is, except a classic example of an "Endangered Species Act knee-jerk reaction" (Gober, 1995).

    Many, if not all, of the scientists and researchers involved in the ferret recovery program share to one degree or another Peter Gober's pessimism. Bob Oakleaf and Bob Luce, long-time ferret biologists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, give the black-footed ferret "a less than 50-50 chance" of making it in the wild (Luce and Oakleaf, 1995). Their concern and frustration is rooted in a realistic understanding of the habitat crisis that faces the ferret and the potentially devastating wild card of sylvatic plague and canine distemper. They remember what happened in Meeteetse at a time when all seemed to be going so well, and now they see with mounting fear the same pattern repeating itself in Shirley Basin.

    Other ferret biologists--people like Dan Hinckley (1995) with the BLM and Tim Clark (1995) with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative--see fiscal and institutional pitfalls scattered in the path of ferret recovery. Inadequate funding, for example, may kill the ferret breeding program, especially in today's political environment of budget slashing and fiscal conservatism. Moreover, institutional rigidity and political machinations compromise the effectiveness of conservation science. They undermine the recovery program and effectively doom the ferret to extinction.

    Lastly, scientists such as Dean Biggins (1995) with the National Biological Survey warn that genetics, predation, disease, fiscal, and institutional problems are not the principal obstacles to ferret recovery. As in the past, the ferret's fate ultimately turns on the quality and quantity of prairie dog habitat.

    Clearly, serious roadblocks lie in the path to ferret recovery. Removing them, of course, is the logical solution to the black-footed ferret's fate. But before that can happen--assuming it can happen at all--we must understand the nature of those roadblocks. Only then can we conceive and advance policy reforms and institutional changes sufficiently robust to make a difference in the rocky road to recovery now being traveled by the imperiled black-footed ferret.

    Biological Roadblocks

    Among the biological barriers blocking ferret recovery, three are notable: genetic complications, predator incursions, and disease outbreaks.

    Genetic Complications

    In many ways, genetics are the potential Achilles heel of the Meeteetse-derived ferret population. The eighteen ferrets captured at Meeteetse from late 1985 through 1987 represent the entire genetic stock for the world's only known population of black-footed ferrets.

    If all eighteen ferrets were genetically distinct the problem would be less severe. Unfortunately, that is not the case: "Many, if not all [of the captive Meeteetse ferrets]," writes Tim Clark (1994b), " are closely related (e.g. brothers and sisters, and parents and offspring)." At best, adds Tom Thorne (1995b), the ferret breeding stock is made up of a maximum of five founder genome equivalents--five relatively distinct gene pools.

    This may seem like quite a few, but in terms of species survival it may be insufficient. Twenty to fifty founder gene pools are considered by many geneticists to be the minimum number needed to breed a healthy, adaptive and survivable population (Thorne, 1994b). Anything short of that exposes a species to genetic disorders such as poor reproduction rates and life-threatening physiological defects. Indeed, the extinction of the Mellette County, South Dakota ferret population and its inability to breed successfully at the Patuxent Research Facility in Maryland is attributed by many researchers to extreme genetic inbreeding (USDI, 1988)

    So far, no serious genetic problems have arisen in the captive ferret populations at Sybille or at the handful of zoological parks involved in the black-footed ferret recovery program. But caution is in order, warns Chris Madson. "[F]errets at the Game and Fish Department's Sybille research facility have shown surprisingly few genetic defects so far, but it's still possible that a dangerous gene or genes could emerge and threaten the future of one or more captive ferret populations (1995)."

    This year, the first indications of possible genetic problems appeared with kits born with kinked tails, jaw and tooth deformities, single kidneys, and females with half of their reproductive tracts missing (Thorne, 1995b). Although these defects have been traced to one founder in the Meeteetse population, they are disquieting signs of what could happen. But even if Meeteetse's ferrets escape the fate of their South Dakota cousins, the fact remains that the surviving gene pool is depauperate. "[E]ven if the ferrets aren't suffering from genetic ills," Madson reminds us, "they have lost much of their genetic diversity" (Madson, 1995).

    Without genetic diversity, captive-bred ferrets face an enormous environmental obstacle: Can they adapt to different environments and the random disturbance events that invariably plague those environments? Can they--indeed, do they--retain the all-important ability to evolve with their changing environment? If they don't, their survival--particularly as a free-roaming species--is highly unlikely.

    Clearly, the genetic story is still unfolding, and the probabilities of genetic bottlenecks remain uncomfortably high. As with most inbreed populations, Meeteetse's ferrets are extremely susceptible to the universally-common danger of inbreeding depression, of sudden and potentially-catastrophic collapses of their island populations due to the random expression of fatal genetic characteristics (Seal, 1989).

    The wolves at Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan, for example, experienced a collapse in numbers possibly linked to inbreeding depression. Their population has recovered in recent years, setting a hopeful and genetically feasible scenario for the black-footed ferret: that even if a genetic flaw results in a population crash, enough individuals without the flaw will survive to propagate a healthier and more viable population of black-footed ferrets (Biggins, 1995).

    Predator Incursions

    Genetics, however, are just one of the biological mountains facing ferrets in their struggle to survive. In all three reintroduction sites, the prime killer of ferrets to date has been predation, not genetic deficiencies or rampant disease (Gober, 1995 and Matchett, 1995b).

    Most of the predation occurs during the first two weeks following release. This is not surprising. Prior to the release of the black-footed ferret in Shirley Basin, Fish & Wildlife Service biologists performed trial releases of Siberian polecats--Mustela eversmanni, a species considered genetically allied if not identical to the black-footed ferret--to test reintroduction strategies. Between 1989 and 1990, all 57 polecats were released with radio collars were later found to have died, mostly from predation by coyotes, badgers, and raptors (Clark, 1994b). In the case of Meeteetse's captive-bred ferrets, predation has so far been dominated by coyotes (Clark, 1995a and Matchett, 1995b).

    To Ron Matchett (1995b), Fish & Wildlife Service biologist at the CMR reintroduction site, releasing captive-bred ferrets into the wild--particularly those that have not been conditioned to their new environments--is "like turning a 5 year-old kid out in the jungle": The odds of survival are low. The 304 Meeteetse-derived ferrets have been easy pickings for predators.

    A few of the ferrets, admittedly, have also lacked the skills to fend for themselves; they have simply starved. Fresh out of their cages, unfamiliar with their new environments, and inexperienced with larger mammals like coyotes, they expose themselves excessively to predation as they explore there new surroundings in search of wild food. As a result, when they encounter predators like coyotes, badgers, and raptors for the first time, what amounts to a new learning opportunity becomes in almost every instance their first and last lesson.

    This is not to say that predation is unnatural; ferrets evolved and thrived for millennia under the continuous exposure to predators. But captive ferrets lack the environmental conditioning to cope with a world far harsher than the controlled and sanitized habitats at Sybille and a handful of zoological parks. Fortunately, this is changing, as will be discussed later in much greater detail.

    What is not changing, however, and what concerns biologists like Matchett (1995b), are the subtle alterations in the prairie dog ecosystem that may well signal a change in the balance between predator and the ferret prey. Specifically, the coyote population, and the impact that coyotes have on black-footed ferrets, may have fundamentally changed over the past century.

    First, Matchett hypothesizes that both rancher and government eradication of wolves--a natural enemy of coyotes--has helped to expand, at the ferret's expense, coyote numbers throughout the West. Second, and more important, he believes that coyote eradication programs run by state and federal animal damage control programs have transformed the coyote into an indirect killer of black-footed ferrets (1995b).

    Tens of thousands of coyotes are killed annually by aerial gunners and trappers, costing taxpayers over $30 million a year (O'Toole, 1994a). The accelerated mortality of coyotes, in turn, has increased the geographical movement of the species as younger animals move in to fill the niches vacated by those killed. This holds unsettling implications for disease transmission.

    Coyotes harbor fleas, and fleas transmit plague. In addition, coyotes are carriers of canine distemper. Although only a hypothesis at this time, there is the danger that a more mobile coyote population may now be a significant disease vector for black-footed ferrets.

    Matchett points out an apparent correlation between coyote eradication and outbreaks of sylvatic plague. In areas where animal damage control is absent or historically minor--such as in the Badlands National Park--plague outbreaks are infrequent or unknown. In areas where coyote eradication is vigorously pursued--such as in the Shirley Basin--plague epidemics are more frequent, and often quite severe (Matchett, 1995b). Although the theory is untested, it is endorsed by other wildlife biologists engaged in black-footed ferret recovery (Gober, 1995).

    Disease Outbreaks

    Anecdotal theories about coyotes, however, cannot diminish the harsh fact that disease is the most severe biological roadblock facing the black-footed ferret. Canine distemper, for example, is universally fatal to the ferret. Probably introduced by dogs at the time of Anglo settlement of the high plains and intermountain West, canine distemper destroyed the Meeteetse ferret population in 1986, and likely pushed the Mellette County, South Dakota, ferrets over the edge of extinction (Biggins, 1995).

    It is carried by most western predators, including those that frequent prairie dog towns--such as coyotes, badgers, and skunks. For that reason, the risk of canine distemper is endemic within the historic range of the black-footed ferret. Vaccines do exist, of course, and reintroduced ferrets are routinely vaccinated. But vaccination does not protect subsequent generations reared in the wild. These natural-born ferrets will remain highly sensitive to the disease and, in the opinion of wildlife biologists, continue to be extremely susceptible to cyclical and catastrophic outbreaks of the disease (Thorne, 1995b and USDI, 1988).

    "It is likely," ferret biologists warn, "that distemper and other diseases will continue to have profound effects on isolated wild populations of ferrets so that no single population will be safe from extinction (USDI, 1988)." This, in Tom Thorne's judgment, is the central unknown factor in the disease ecology of black-footed ferrets (1995b).

    What is known to Thorne and other ferret experts, however, is the devastating potential of sylvatic plague, a disease introduced from the Orient through the port of San Francisco around 1900. Detected in prairie dogs in the early 1930s, plague remained for decades a disease primarily endemic to the American southwest. More recently, it has become common in Colorado and Wyoming, and over the past few years it has gradually spread to the formerly safe-havens of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota--the very heartland of the historic ferret range.

    Sylvatic plague was identified for the first time ever in prairie dog colonies in the Badlands and CMR reintroduction sites this past year. With all three release areas now subject to plague epidemics, survival prospects for the black-footed ferret are growing increasingly remote in the minds of most researchers in the recovery program (Biggins, 1995, Hinckley, 1995, Oakleaf, 1995, and Thorne, 1995b).

    The problem with plague is twofold. First, the disease is characteristically catastrophic for prairie dogs, virtually wiping out entire colonies in each outbreak. Moreover, colonies that are scourged by the plague are not immediately repopulated by prairie dogs. Decades will often pass before the plague-created ghost towns are revisited and recolonized.

    This is problematic for the black-footed ferret in a prairie dog ecosystem where once extensive complexes of colonies are now fragmented, isolated, and drastically reduced in size. Plague epidemics not only rob ferrets of their immediate food source and living quarters, but leave them without any practical substitute for survival. They simply cannot move from a diseased colony to a healthy one through viable connecting corridors. The prairie dog colonies that sustain them are human-made biological islands. Each of them are too distant from one another to allow successful ferret migration and reestablishment. Catastrophe for the local prairie dog population means, necessarily, devastation to the resident black-footed ferret community (Clark, 1989b and USDI, 1993).

    But even if escape corridors existed and healthy colonies were readily accessible--as they were prior to massive federal and state poisoning of prairie dogs in the 20th century--there is an additional complication for the black-footed ferret. Conventional wisdom has long presumed that ferrets are immune to plague, that the effect of plague on ferret viability is indirect, expressed exclusively by the disease's impact on prairie dog prey and habitat.

    Research at the Sybille research facility, though, reveals disturbing findings. Black-footed ferret/Siberian polecat hybrids were fed plague-infested mice. Almost all of the ferret hybrids contracted the plague and subsequently died. More ominous yet, experiments were done in the spring of 1995 at Sybille to expose hybrid ferrets to sylvatic plague through simulated flea bites. As of the writing of this report, two of the trial ferrets were reported ill and dying from plague (Thorne, 1995b). If ferrets are indeed susceptible to direct infection as current research now suggests, the threat from sylvatic plague to the successful reintroduction and recovery of the black-footed ferret is orders of magnitude greater than previously thought (Biggins, 1995).

    Political Roadblocks

    Recovery of the black-footed ferret entails more than overcoming biological barriers. From the moment Lucille Hogg's dog came home with a ferret in its mouth, the charismatic animal has been a political football tugged and fought over by competing groups in an unending contest for control and power. Federal, state, and private groups have fought and argued with one another incessantly over what strategies are best for the ferret, what agencies are to blame for failures in the ferret recovery program, and what measures should be taken to ensure the future of the furtive creature.

    Amidst the intra-agency squabbles and private-public disputes, the ferret has become both a hostage and a victim of institutional, bureaucratic, and political forces--forces which, in an ecological sense, may be as determinant of the ferret's fate as the biological hurdles of genetics, predators, and disease. Indeed, the divisiveness of debate and the contentious rivalry between organizations and special interests have compromised from the very start the survival chances of the imperiled ferret.

    Miscalculation at Meeteetse

    Genetically, the crucial years for ferret survival lay between the discovery of the Meeteetse population in 1981 and its annihilation by canine distemper in 1986. Those five years determined the quantity and quality of genetic stock that would be left for rebuilding the fortunes of the black-footed ferret. Central to that outcome was the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and its selection by the Fish & Wildlife Service to be the lead agency in black-footed ferret recovery.

    Once placed in control, Wyoming Game and Fish pursued a strategy that in retrospect placed the ferret in extreme jeopardy (Clark, 1995b). Rather than heed the warnings of a growing number of wildlife biologists that the Meeteetse population was not viable in the wild and therefore should be captured while its numbers were high and its genetic diversity at a peak, the department decided to follow a plan of wait and see. By all outward appearances the Meeteetse population seemed healthy and stable. Indeed, surveys for the first few years showed a steadily increasing number of ferrets. There seemed to be no reason to trap an apparently healthy population and expose them to the hazards and uncertainties of captive breeding.

    Wyoming's reasoning seemed sound enough. But to ferret biologists like Tim Clark the department's laissez-faire attitude toward the Meeteetse ferret was an open invitation to disaster. Well in advance of the 1986 population crash, Clark argued that only three options existed for increasing ferret numbers: 1) increase available habitat for ferrets where they currently exist; 2) find more wild ferrets elsewhere, and 3) directly manipulate the ferret population through relocation and/or captive rearing (BYU, 1986).

    The first option, expanding ferret habitat, was biologically possible, Clark argued, but least preferable of the various options. To get more ferret habitat would require expanding active prairie dog colonies--an option that would take five or more years to complete and that would require a level of cooperation from local ranchers that seemed unlikely at the time. Moreover, even if the Meeteetse population was successfully enlarged, it would remain an insular pocket "highly vulnerable to catastrophic elimination."

    Clark dismissed option two--finding more ferrets--with equally sound biological arguments. He pointed out that the conspicuous lack of success in find new ferret populations--despite "recently improved methods"--made option two a high stakes gamble that ferret biologists simply could not afford.

    Clark settled on option three. He called for a gradual, and then only partial, removal and transfer of wild ferrets from Meeteetse to a breeding facility. This approach would keep the Meeteetse population intact while allowing, at the same time, a proactive recovery program. A vigorous breeding program would provide a genetic safeguard in case of catastrophe at Meeteetse and, at the same time, produce a viable population of captive ferrets for relocation to new sites. This would hedge the bet for the ferret's survival. It would diversify and strengthen recovery strategy by shifting focus away from Meeteetse to the health of prairie dog colonies and the sheer numbers of ferret communities that could be successfully relocated to those colonies.

    Proliferation of ferret-occupied habitat, not just bulk numbers of ferrets, was the key to ferret survival. "The future of this unique species," Clark wrote, "is brighter today than in the last few decades." He was certain ferret recovery could and would work, especially given "a cooperative private, state, and federal program and a closely managed coalition of interests" (BYU, 1986).

    Despite Clark's plea, ferrets were not captured for breeding before 1986 and private, state, and federal cooperation never evolved as Clark envisioned. Instead, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department called the shots, controlling the ferret landscape with institutional fervor and rigidity (Clark, 1995b). Private and federal interests were never completely brought into the Meeteetse recovery program (Biggins, 1995). A wealth of scientific minds and information was passed over in favor of a highly centralized yet provincially narrow decision-making process.

    Stubbornly wed to traditional biological precepts that wild populations are best left to their own, Wyoming biologists simply ignored the natural history of the ferret and the growing volume of data that sounded alarms for its future safety. The department failed to see in Meeteetse a pattern that stretched back to Mellette County in South Dakota; the inevitable march of extinction, the glaring probability that Meeteetse was merely the last, fleeting stand of an embattled species on earth. And failing to grasp the species inexorable slide toward extinction, the department simply turned its back on the vocal critics of its laissez-faire policy.

    Wyoming administrators and biologists had no reason to listen to private and federal doomsayers. They held the reigns of power; they were the masters of the ferret's fate. By all measurable indicators the department's institutional umbrella over the prairie dog colonies at the PitchFork Ranch was doing its job. Everything was under control: There was no need for outside input or the interfering meddling of private and federal do-gooders. The State of Wyoming--or more correctly, a small state bureaucracy and a handful of wildlife experts--could easily handle the problem of the black-footed ferret, even if it was a historic problem created by the combined efforts of both the federal and state governments.

    Institutional inflexibility and bureaucratic arrogance exiled the ideas and information essential to ferret recovery, supplanting the diversity of an independent and wide-ranging scientific community with the centralism of a small and insular management elite (Clark 1992, 1994c, and 1995b). In effect, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department did to ferret recovery what three-quarters of a century of prairie dog-poisoning did to the ferret: it cleared the intellectual landscape of diversity and left in its place an island mentality incapable of fathoming the ecological complexities of the prairie dog ecosystem and its endangered black-footed ferret.

    As a result, the 1986 catastrophe was practically inevitable. The ferret survived not because Wyoming Game and Fish did what was right, but because it was lucky enough to stay one step ahead of the canine distemper virus. And even with luck, the fact remains that only 18 ferrets were salvaged out of a population that numbered hundreds over a five-year period. There is no way to know what was lost genetically because of Wyoming's institutional intransigence. All that is certain is this: What nearly pushed the ferret to extinction in Meeteetse was not the biological mountains of distemper and plague, but the political roadblocks that stood in the way of preemptive planning for the near certainty of catastrophic disease.

    Politics of Ferret Release Site Selection

    Politics continue to rule much of the fate of the black-footed ferret, as evidenced by the non-biological factors that have influenced the selection of reintroduction sites. Shirley Basin, for example, was touted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for its "excellent habitat potential" and subsequently selected on that basis as the first reintroduction site for the black-footed ferret (WGF, 1991).

    Department biologists have since backed off from uncritical praise of Shirley Basin, arguing instead that its selection was ruled more by the urgency of the moment than the suitability of its habitat (Luce and Oakleaf, 1995). It was simply the only site available at the moment to accept ferrets (Thorne, 1995b). It was, by default, the first reintroduction site.

    None of these arguments are biologically sound or, for that matter, historically fit. First, the claim that Shirley Basin was excellent habitat simply doesn't hold water. Being colonized exclusively by white-tailed prairie dogs, its density of burrows was one-half to one-third that of black-tailed prairie dog colonies. As a result, ferrets released at Shirley Basin had to spend more time above ground in search of active burrows for food and shelter. This meant more exposure to predators and, as a result, a higher probability of death by predation.

    Biologists believe one reason ferret survival rates are highest at the CMR site is the high burrow densities of the resident black-tailed prairie dogs. South Dakota's Badlands release site is also a black-tailed prairie dog community, but burrow densities for a variety of reasons are not nearly as great.

    Moreover, Shirley Basin had a long history of sylvatic plague and canine distemper. By selecting that site, Wyoming Game and Fish put the ferret in extreme yet needless jeopardy (Biggins, 1995, Clark, 1995b, Gober, 1995, and USDI, 1993). As events in the spring of 1995 have tragically confirmed, it was only a matter of time before disease swept the reintroduction site and decimated the small enclave of released ferrets and their prairie dog hosts.

    Second, Wyoming Game and Fish Department had viable options to Shirley Basin. In northeastern Wyoming, candidate sites were considered in the Thunder Basin National Grassland and on the TR Ranch in Campbell County. Both sites were colonized by black-tailed prairie dogs.

    The grassland site, the smaller of the two, was probably the least preferable. Forest Service officials reportedly "dragged their feet" when asked to cooperate with the Department on ferret recovery (Luce and Oakleaf, 1995). In addition, ranchers in and around the national grassland were antagonistic toward prairie dog protection--a major stumbling block to successful ferret release. Accustomed to decades of prairie dog control by the Forest Service and state and federal animal damage control agencies, they were reluctant to give up the option of poisoning prairie dogs.

    The TR Ranch in Campbell County, in contrast, had none of the flaws of the Thunder Basin National Grassland. It contained 20,000-30,000 acres of prime black-tailed prairie dog habitat. More importantly, its owners had voluntarily offered the ranch for reintroduction, asking only that any losses in subsurface mineral rights be compensated. This seemed reasonable enough since ferret impact on mineral development was unlikely.

    Accordingly, a biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish prepared a plan to secure the site for ferrets. But outcry from private landowners fearing the precedent of releasing black-footed ferrets on private range--its potential impact on federal and state prairie dog poisoning benefits--persuaded department officials and the governing Commission of Game and Fish to kill the proposal (Biggins, 1995).

    Third, the argument that Shirley Basin had to be used because it was the only available site is specious. It falsely presumes that ferrets had to be reintroduced in 1991. Certainly, more than enough ferrets had been produced by then to launch the reintroduction phase of the recovery program. Moreover, failure to put ferrets on the ground by 1991 would have disappointed biologists and signaled a setback for ferret recovery.

    Yet, postponing site selection would have entailed at the very worst only short-term disappointment and a short-term setback. It might have delayed the program by a year or two, but from the perspective of saving a species for future generations, the cost of a couple more years would have been insignificant. Indeed, the gambit of postponement--as we now know--would have given biologists breathing space to locate suitable habitat and a chance to avoid the catastrophic fate that awaited the Shirley Basin black-footed ferrets. At the very least, several hundred more ferrets would be alive today. Politics, however, got in the way.

    Shirley Basin was, in a narrow and perverted sense, selected by default for the worst of reasons. Split almost evenly between private and state and BLM ownership, the site was politically correct. Except for one ranch in the basin, prairie dog poisoning had all but disappeared years earlier. Shirley Basin ranchers, unlike their counterparts in Campbell County and Thunder Basin, had nothing to lose from ferret reintroduction. They had no ongoing, state or federal prairie dog poisoning programs that would be jeopardized by the arrival of the black-footed ferret.

    In addition, the light density of white-tailed prairie dog burrows was a plus for ranchers since they were not a major stumbling block to livestock production. Moreover, the ferret had the potential of being a plus for most stockmen in the reintroduction area. Given the carnivore's specialty diet, there was good reason to believe that prairie dog numbers might actually decline with ferret release, and at no cost to private- and public-land ranchers.

    In effect, Wyoming politics--not the best biological judgments of wildlife scientists--determined the selection of Shirley Basin. The choice was a win-win move by Wyoming Game and Fish: It appeased private property owners and national grassland graziers in the northeast--the very ones with the political clout to play havoc with the Department's budget. At the same time, the department's decision made few if any enemies among the human residents of Shirley Basin (Biggins, 1995). Being a political outcome, it did little for the black-footed ferret.

    What happened in the Shirley Basin is now happening in the Conata Basin/Badlands reintroduction area. By agreement between the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, ranchers, and the State of South Dakota, the Badlands National Park was designated to be the first site in the reintroduction area to receive ferret transplants. After a year, participating parties agreed to extend the transplant program into the Conata Basin, much of which lies in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

    True to the first part of the schedule, ferrets were released on the Badlands National Park in the fall of 1994 and then in the spring of 1995. The second part of the schedule, however, is going nowhere. No plans have emerged to seed the Conata Basin with captive ferrets. Indeed, rancher resistance, fueled by historic and extensive Forest Service prairie dog poisoning, may be putting the brakes on plans to recover the ferret in South Dakota (Biggins, 1995 and Gober, 1995).

    Ferret reintroduction--specifically the paring of ferrets with ecologically-sound release sites--has been foiled and distorted by politics in less obvious ways, too. Intra-agency competition for the scarce commodity of captive ferrets has generated political pressures to spread ferret releases too thinly among the South Dakota and Montana release sites. Forty ferrets turned loose at the CMR and 36 initially freed at Badlands were, in the judgment of Chris Mason and other ferret biologists, simply too few to ensure a successful reintroduction (1995).

    In addition, political pride and organizational intransigence has kept Wyoming Game and Fish from acknowledging the inappropriateness of Shirley Basin as ferret habitat. The result has been a continuous drain and disproportionate flow of scarce ferrets into an environment that is proving itself to be a literal death trap. Other sites, such as the CMR, are likely to prove more inviting and environmentally friendly to ferrets, but state and federal politics and institutional rivalry threaten to shuffle the black-footed ferret in every direction but the right one.

    CMR and Political Fences

    Randy Matchett, Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist assigned to the CMR ferret reintroduction area, has an idea on how to protect ferrets from coyotes during the critical two week adjustment period following release. He wants to put up five miles of temporary electric fencing around the ferret reintroduction site to give black-footed ferrets a chance to acclimate to their new environment and, in the process, to increase their odds of escaping excessive coyote predation.

    Matchett doesn't want to isolate ferrets from coyotes. He knows that ferrets and coyotes coevolved, and that even with high death rates from predators in the past, black-footed ferrets survived for millennia--at least until the federal government got into the business of mass extermination of prairie dogs (Matchett, 1995b).

    The fence that Matchett wants to use is quite simple and extremely portable. Made of wire-impregnated plastic mesh, it is designed to protect sheep from coyotes. The company that makes it guarantees 100 percent exclusion of coyotes or money back. Matchett doesn't care if a few coyotes get through; his concern is to simply stem the tide of predators and give captive-bred ferrets breathing space for survival and adaptation.

    Moreover, the fence--which will cost $15,000 for the five-mile stretch--is lightweight and durable: it is easy to erect and disassemble, and it is reusable over and over again. That means once the fence is paid for, Fish & Wildlife Service biologists can use it for future ferret releases both at the CMR Wildlife Preserve and elsewhere in the central Montana reintroduction area (Matchett, 1995a).

    Electric fencing to protect captive-bred ferrets is a novel and untested idea. When it is tried in the fall of 1995, researchers will be watching closely to determine its effectiveness. If it keeps coyotes out of the release area for two weeks, fencing will continue. If it doesn't work, the fencing idea will be abandoned (Matchett, 1995a and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1994). Failure, of course, will cost taxpayers $15,000, but the alternatives that face the Fish & Wildlife Service and the black-footed ferret are not any cheaper.

    One alternative is to do nothing. Ferrets that now cost $5,000 to raise from scratch will be simply released and left to their untutored wits. That is exactly what happened in South Dakota this spring: 26 ferrets were transplanted into the Badlands and 26 ferrets were served up as a $130,000 meal to hungry coyotes.

    There is another option, however, one that has generated considerable controversy and threatened to eclipse Matchett's fencing idea. It is an option that illuminates with sharp distinction the otherwise fuzzy subtleties of ferret politics.

    The state of Montana, backed by Senator Conrad Burns and the ranching community, has formally protested the fencing idea. They argue that electric fencing is just a temporary prophylactic, that it doesn't get to the heart of the problem, which is the coyote. Evoking the welfare of the black-footed ferret, they are demanding that the Fish & Wildlife Service permit aerial gunning of coyotes on the CMR.

    The Fish & Wildlife Service has agreed to gunning as a contingency in the case of fencing failure. But that's not enough for ranchers and politicians who want federally subsidized coyote shooting on the CMR now--just as it has been standard practice for decades on the BLM lands that surround the preserve (Hinckley, 1995). Animal damage control is for them the preferred option to portable, electric fencing.

    Matchett has two problems with animal damage control. One problem is that the CMR is designed as a refuge for all wildlife, including coyotes. The other is that aerial gunning of coyotes is extremely expensive. Fish & Wildlife Service figures show that the cost of helicopter time alone for a two-week acclimation period for ferrets would cost more than $15,000 (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1994 and Matchett, 1995a and 1995b). Moreover, the treatment would have to be repeated at that cost for each subsequent ferret release. Finally, even with continuous surveillance and shooting from the air, coyotes would still be able to penetrate the reintroduction area--and would likely do so in even greater numbers than would be possible in a protective regime of electric fencing.

    But Matchett suspects that the issue has nothing to do with the welfare of the black-footed ferret. Rather, the black-footed ferret has become a political tool to advance the special interests of the livestock industry. It has opened a door of opportunity to politicians and their constituencies to argue for the expansion of subsidized animal damage control from BLM lands to Fish & Wildlife Service lands.

    In the process, though, it is unlikely that the black-footed ferret will benefit. First, aerial gunning is expensive, and represents a potential drain on an already financially-stressed ferret recovery program. Second, aerial gunning may prove less effective than fencing in protecting ferrets during the critical two-week adjustment phase. If this is true, and Matchett's fencing experiment will give the answer, then ferret recover could well take back seat to the ranching agenda of coyote extermination.

    Third, if Matchett is correct in his thinking about coyotes as a vector for plague and distemper, aerial gunning could accelerate the movement of coyotes and the exposure of ferrets to catastrophic disease. Most of all, a victory for aerial gunning and animal damage control would signal the triumph of the very strategies that resulted in the historic fragmentation and reduction of prairie dog habitat. It would strengthen the very policies and institutions that underlie the fate of the black-footed ferret and that propel it to this day toward extinction.

    Battle for Control

    Institutional rivalry and political maneuvering have dominated the recovery scene ever since the discovery of the black-footed ferret in Meeteetse, Wyoming. From evolving basic strategies for dealing with the Meeteetse population to selecting reintroduction sites to curbing predator impacts, the black-footed ferret has been a convenient political football for governmental and private interests.

    Ranchers have used the ferret unabashedly as a weapon to secure and protect political privileges and politicians and agencies--at state and federal levels--have used the ferret to appease constituencies and win popular and financial support. Overall, the ferret recovery program has been a contest for power and control, where federal, state, and private concerns have battled one another in memos, letters and an endless cascade of angry and embittered articles.

    Typical of the bureaucratic squabbles that now divide and weaken the ferret recovery program is a Montana BLM report on ferret recovery and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's embittered response to it (Reading, 1991 and Oakleaf, 1992). Richard Reading, a BLM wildlife biologist and a member of the Montana Black-footed Ferret Working Group, attributes "strained interagency relations" to what he sees as an institutional battle for "control of the ferret recovery program."

    Reading accuses Wyoming Game and Fish of making bureaucratic control, not the ferret, the focus of recovery efforts. That is why, he argues, Wyoming Game and Fish stuck to a hands-off approach to ferret reintroduction. Lacking the requisite manpower and resources, the department knew that commitment to a scientific approach to ferret recovery would have entailed sharing or transferring power and control to agencies better equipped for the task.

    Defenders of the department counter with the reminder that the Fish & Wildlife Service was more than anxious to let Wyoming take the lead on the Meeteetse ferret--and later to take the lead in breeding ferrets at the Sybille research facility. Wyoming may not have had a cornucopia of resources, but it did have facilities and a budget that the Fish & Wildlife Service simply lacked at the time (Hinckley, 1995 and Luce and Oakleaf, 1995).

    Reading's most pointed accusations are aimed at the department's close working relationship with local livestock operators. He complains that Wyoming Game and Fish inserted itself as a clearing house between ranchers and federal agencies, and that in many cases it allied rancher sentiment against federal involvement.

    In response, Bob Luce claims that the department's "over riding goal since 1986 has always been to develop reintroduction so that it can be embraced and supported by the local society." At all times, he continues, the department's "concern was that if enough people bothered a rancher, he would become irritated with the program (Oakleaf, 1992)." Reading, however, was suspicious of the local society and its "conservative views, such as a distrust of government and people from outside the area, strong libertarian views, resistance to change, the predominance of traditional sources of authority, etc." (Reading, 1991).

    Reading and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department are probably both right and wrong. Wyoming did seek control, but so did other agencies as soon the stakes for black-footed ferret recovery became high enough. Moreover, it is doubtful that the level of science sought by Reading could have significantly improved the long-term prospects of the Meeteetse ferret. Even if Wyoming had shared control with others and embraced a wider community of public and private cooperators, there is no evidence that this would have either diminished political interference with ferret recovery or significantly improved the dismal habitat fortunes of the ferret.

    Reading is correct that local interests helped politicize the black-footed ferret and helped motivate the department to take actions that were not in the ferret's best interest. At the same time, Oakleaf is correct: Ferret recovery depends on the support of local society. Working with local ranchers--particularly on a partnership basis--is absolutely necessary.

    The problem is that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department spent more time shielding stockmen from outside agencies than including them in the decision-making process (Clark, 1995b). In other words, the department opted for paternalism over democratic involvement. Such a strategy has worked well to protect rancher interests, but it is has done little to make ferrets and their prairie dog prey welcomed on Wyoming's eastern rangelands where black-tailed colonies promise unexcelled ferret habitat.

    Tim Clark is one of the most vocal critics of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He has lambasted the department for its bureaucratization of the ferret program and its territorial mentality that precludes others from effective involvement in ferret recovery.

    Clark suggests that Wyoming's states' rights mind set compelled it to go it alone on ferret recovery. As a result, the department isolated itself from vital sources of information and even more vital reality checks. It was able to convince itself to do nothing about the Meeteetse ferret in the mistaken assumption that just because the ferret had lasted for millennia in Meeteetse it would surely last for many more decades. This failed to consider the long-term reality of the ferret's contracting habitat in Meeteetse and the ferret's virtual extinction elsewhere.

    Moreover, the department's narrow blinders precluded it from learning important lessons from past mistakes. Instead of becoming proactive in its dealings with the Meeteetse ferrets, it committed itself to the reactive strategy of managing crisis after crisis (Clark, 1995b).

    Wyoming Game and Fish crippled the ferret program in other ways, too. By shunning the involvement and cooperation of others it set itself up for a fiscal crisis. The Department's overall budget is scheduled to be trimmed from $40.6 million to $33.8 million over the next two years (Madson, 1995). This means that there will be no money available for ferret surveys in Shirley Basin--no way to ascertain if the recovery program there is still live or merely a crashing failure.

    More significantly, a shrinking budget means that the future of the Sybille ferret breeding facility is in doubt. There is not enough money in the department's budget to keep the breeding program alive past 1995 (Clark, 1995a and Thorne, 1995b). And if Sybille closes, the number of captive-bred ferrets will plummet, endangering the rudimentary release program that is already in existence.

    Tim Clark's complaints extend also to the federal agencies involved in the ferret recovery program. The Fish & Wildlife Service, the BLM, and the Forest Service may lack the power and control exercised by Wyoming, but their strategies to date have not consistently benefited the survival chances of the black-footed ferret.

    Clark's approach to saving the ferret has been to stress grassroots involvement and close working ties with resident ranchers and landowners. From the start of the Meeteetse episode he invested time and energy into building ties and friendships with the local citizenry in whose hands the ferret's future--or at least its habitat--rested. Yet he, and the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, met resistance from federal authorities from the very start of the Meeteetse story.

    Clark's principal criticism of ferret recovery at both the state and federal levels has been its historic centralization--its reluctance to open its doors to a wide range of interests and to partake and thrive on the diversity that many players in the ferret recovery program can offer and bring (1995b). He understands that as important as wildlife managers and wildlife biologists are to the immediate survival of the black-footed ferret, the species long-term survival prospects rest with the willingness of rural people to share their landscapes with the ferret and its much-hated prey, the prairie dog.

    Habitat Roadblocks

    Barriers to the recovery of the black-footed ferret are numerous and substantial. Genetics, disease, predation, institutional behavior and politics are constant and all-pervasive threats to the survival of the ferret. Alone, or individually, they have the power to thwart the best conservation efforts of wildlife biologists and the best intentions of the Endangered Species Act.

    At the same time, the ferret's extreme susceptibility to these biological and sociological factors is anchored in a more fundamental threat: the loss of habitat. Without the fragmentation and reduction of the prairie dog ecosystem by cultivation first and aggressive animal damage control second, plague and distemper today would have the checks and balances that come with complex and diverse natural systems. Disease would still strike, and with devastating effects to individuals and communities, but the species would be shielded by virtue of its extensive range and its natural multitude.

    Predators, particularly coyotes, would still prey on ferrets, but the fate of the species would no longer hinge on the survival of a single generation in a handful of small and insular habitats. Moreover, predator impacts would vary over an geographically extensive range, bringing devastation to some ferret communities in some years and sparing other communities in other years.

    Genetics would also be less of a wild card if habitat was sufficient to once again promote diversity and evolution. And institutions and politics, while still influencing western wildlands, would no longer flex the ecological muscle that they do today. Given sufficient habitat, no single state government or federal agency would so dominate the ferret's range as to endanger the species by bureaucratic ineptitude or political machinations. By the same token, no single private landowner would control sufficient ferret habitat to endanger the species with callous land management.

    Habitat is the fundamental problem facing the black-footed ferret, not the stochastic events of genetics, disease, predation, institutions, and politics (Biggins, 1995). It is the root factor that will determine in the long run the restoration of the prairie dog ecosystem and the viability of the ferret.

    This is both good and bad news for conservation biologists. It is good news because it offers hope: It says that the ferret can be salvaged, that biological and socio-political barriers can be surmounted without relegating the ferret to museum status at a consortium of zoological parks. It is bad news because, despite the millions of acres of potential ferret habitat, there is a politically-induced shortage of habitat that frustrates the progress made to date in black-footed ferret recovery.

    The crisis is not new; it is rooted in historic policies that have turned humans against prairie dogs and, by ecological extension, also against the disappearing ferret. It is aggravated, of course, by the fear and uncertainty that surrounds the Endangered Species Act. Nonetheless, its primary impetus is entrenched in a long and enduring legacy of overgrazing and reflexive hatred for the prairie dog.

    Treating Symptoms, Not the Cause

    Wildlife biologists differ on many aspects of ferret ecology and recovery. But on one subject they are in complete agreement: the matter of animal damage control and its disruptive effect on the prairie dog ecosystem. More than a half century of poisoning, allied with aggressive cultivation of prairie soils, rapidly shrunk the prairie dog domain from hundreds of millions of acres to probably less than 3 million acres.

    The story of prairie dog poisoning with strychnine, sodium fluoracetate (Compound 1080), and zinc, and aluminum phosphide is simple, clear-cut, and legendary. But it is only part of the story. Poisoning was indeed the tool, but it wasn't the cause of the prairie dog and ferrets' undoing. At most, poisoning was but a recent link in the tragic history of the West's settlement.

    Steady and continuous overgrazing--encouraged and facilitated by ecologically unsound federal land and agricultural policies--set in motion the events that culminated in the West's war on prairie dogs. Public policy promulgated the incentives and provided the momentum for bringing man and the prairie dog ecosystem into fatal collision.

    Starting in the late 1870s and continuing up to the passage of the 1935 Taylor Grazing Act, overgrazing in the West was chronic and ubiquitous (O'Toole, 1994b). Open range conditions--made possible by homestead laws and federal policies that frustrated stockmens' attempts to regulate grazing on the public domain--culminated in vast swaths of denuded prairies, plains, and deserts.

    As plant cover diminished in the wake of increasing cattle and sheep numbers, the prairie dog ecosystem received an ecological boost. Long associated with the migratory movement of bison and their intense yet brief impacts on arid grasslands, it flourished with equal or greater intensity in the new and expanded niches carved by the continuous and mounting grazing pressure of domestic livestock.

    Overgrazing by cattle and sheep highly favored the environmental needs of the prairie dog (Koford, 1958, Osborn, 1942, and Taylor, 1924.) As a result, prairie dog colonies, already far-ranging prior to European arrival, expanded for a brief few years, pushing prairie dog numbers to unprecedented levels (Clark, 1995b, Merriam, 1902, Uresk, 1987 and 1993, and USDI, 1993). Estimates made of the late nineteenth century grazing-induced prairie dog population put the aerial coverage of its colonies close to 700 million acres (Merriam, 1902 and USDI, 1988 and 1993).

    Infestation of grazing lands by prairie dogs, in turn, generated hysteria in the ranching community. Studies, such as the 1902 survey by C.H. Merriam, reported that prairie dogs were reducing rangeland productivity by over two-thirds. Ranchers were convinced that prairie dogs were laying waste to their ranges and, in the process, destroying their livelihoods.

    Merriam and the ranchers were wrong: The decline in range productivity measured by Merriam and the rapid expansion of the prairie dog ecosystem were two separate outcomes of massive overgrazing. Modern research now indicates only a modest 4 to 7 percent competitive overlap between prairie dogs and livestock (USDI, 1993). Declines in range productivity were caused by the ranchers themselves, urged on by federal policies that made overgrazing an inevitable and necessary part of the homesteading of the West.

    Ranchers and federal policy makers did not concern themselves with the analytic subtleties of prairie dog invasion. Action was needed now, and the course of least resistance was to commit the federal government and its treasury to a massive campaign of prairie dog extermination. No one understood, or seemed to want to understand, that prairie dogs thrive on overgrazed ranges, and that killing them in copious numbers amounted to little more than treating the most visible symptom of unrelenting land abuse (McNulty, 1971).

    "Over-abundance of prairie dogs," writes F.R. Henderson, "is a sign of poor range management. We perpetuate poor rangeland management by advocating killing prairie dogs only" (Henderson, 1979). In other words, killing prairie dogs is not naturally in the self-interest of ranchers; it's just that public policy has made killing prairie dogs a matter of unnatural self-interest.

    These were academic fine points missed in the outcry of angry ranchers and in the rush of politicians and agencies to meet the plaintive demands of their constituents. In a real sense, they were not even academic points: After a century of land-grant university range science on private lands and scientific management by university-trained managers of public rangelands, overgrazing continues to plague the western United States (Holechek, 1993).

    Federal figures, for example, indicate that 50 to 60 percent of all private and public rangelands are still overstocked (Hess, 1986 and O'Toole, 1994b). Many of these lands, in turn, are overgrazed in the mistaken belief that more cattle translate into more net profits (Hess, 1995). Nothing could be further from the truth. "Various studies from different types of rangelands," observes New Mexico range scientist Jerry Holechek, "have shown that although heavy grazing may be more profitable than conservative grazing for a few years, in the long run (5 to 10 years) it generally gives a lower rate of return and increases financial risk" (Holechek, 1993).

    Profit incentives for conservative grazing, however, have functioned poorly in a present-day, public-policy environment where federal subsidies skew and distort the profit-maximizing behavior of ranchers. Thanks to a plethora of ranching subsidies--including the USDA Emergency Feed program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service brush control efforts, range improvement projects funded by the BLM and the Forest Service, and USDA animal damage control--ranchers not only can afford to overgraze, but they can make a profit while doing it (Hess, 1995 and O'Toole, 1994b).

    Federally subsidized overgrazing has fueled rancher fear, resentment, and hatred of the prairie dog. It has made it tantalizingly easy for stockmen to shift the blame for poor range conditions from themselves to the most obvious symbol of denuded range: the endless miles of colonies that spring up in the wake of too many cattle and sheep. Bad grazing practices have, in effect, exacerbated the conflict between man and the prairie dog ecosystem, forcing the black-footed ferret into an increasingly untenable position with each passing year.

    Modern-Day Rodenticide

    Prairie-dog poisoning continues on western rangelands, often at surprisingly high levels. In the Conata Basin of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland--the other half of the Badlands ferret reintroduction area--the Forest Service is still actively engaged in prairie dog eradication. The agency hopes to curb the recent explosion in prairie dog numbers that has swollen the expanse of prairie dog colonies from a mere 2,000 acres in the early 1970s to over 30,000 acres today. Although a number of factors help explain the expansion, including a temporary suspension of poisoning in the late 1970s, the Forest Service puts much of the blame on "stocking levels for grazing livestock [that] were excessive in relation to the carrying capacity of the forage resource (McDonald, 1995 and USDA, 1989)."

    Present-day prairie-dog poisoning is not limited to just South Dakota's national grasslands. In fact, prairie-dog poisoning is big business throughout the state. Under South Dakota law, prairie dogs are considered pests in the same category as obnoxious weeds, and landowners having them on their ranges must either eradicate them by their own efforts or pay the costs for others to do the eradication. To facilitate prairie dog removal, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture maintains a list of about 25 approved commercial operations whose business is to poison prairie dogs. With the department's help, and the assistance of county extension offices and county weed and pest boards, 66,143 acres of prime ferret habitat were treated with rodenticides in 1985-1987 (Roemer, 1995).

    Wyoming operates much like South Dakota. The state is divided into county weed and pest districts which have the authority to control prairie dogs. Districts have the power and responsibility to inspect prairie-dog infested lands and, if necessary, to order landowners to eradicate the prairie dog communities at private expense--or face a fine of $50 per day, up to a maximum of $2,500, for noncompliance. Generally, however, expenses for prairie dog removal are cost-shared, with the districts paying 40 to 80 percent of the expense.

    During 1989-1992, for example, county weed and pest districts spent almost one-half million dollars on prairie dog control. Interestingly, the bulk of all state and federal funds for prairie dog control in 1991 and 1992 went to Campbell County where 37,547 acres of state and private land and 11,225 acres of federal land were treated (Roemer, 1995). Campbell County, of course, was the alternate site for Wyoming's ferret reintroduction program. In the minds of many wildlife biologists, it was immeasurably superior in habitat quality to Shirley Basin--at least prior to 1991 (Biggins, 1995). Prairie-dog politics, subsidized with taxpayer dollars, played a pivotal role in the passing up of Campbell county and the selection of Shirley Basin by default.

    Prairie-dog control programs exist to varying degrees in other states, including Montana. State programs are supplemented by a variety of federal sources. The Forest Service, in cooperative agreement with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, conducts substantial reduction programs in both national forests and national grasslands.

    Numerous other federal agencies are active in prairie dog poisoning.

    False Economies

    Federal and state subsidies for prairie-dog control account in large part for the politically-induced shortage of black-footed ferret habitat. Yet under the best of conditions, prairie dog control is not cost-effective for its stated goal of improving livestock forage. Data collected from a number of sites in the black-footed ferret's historic range show that livestock forage benefits gained from prairie dog poisoning fall short of costs even on the most productive grasslands. Moreover, these same studies report that "annual maintenance costs" for prairie dog control consistently exceed "the annual value of forage gained (Collins, 1984)."

    Dan Uresk not only confirms these conclusions in his own research in South Dakota, but points to the fact that "prairie dog control on rangelands in western South Dakota did not result in a positive increase in forage production after 4 years (Uresk 1983 and 1985)." In other words, a substantial body of literature argues that in the absence of subsidies, private ranchers could not afford--and would not engage in--prairie dog control (Scott, 1995).

    Making Friends of Enemies

    The elimination of state and federal subsidies for poisoning alone would not, by itself, cure the vicious cycle of overgrazing and prairie dog infestation. As long as federal policies encourage stockmen to graze at levels that could not be sustained without subsidy, overgrazing will continue, prairie dogs will still be hated, and the black-footed ferret will be denied the habitat so essential to its recovery (Hess, 1995 and O'Toole, 1994b).

    Numerous federal policies and subsidies promote overgrazing on private and public land.

    Ranchers can survive without grazing subsidies; indeed, with careful management and judicious grazing, they can prosper (Holechek, 1993). A regime of conservative stocking can produce quality animals on quality forage at a fraction of the cost of heavy grazing, and without a penny of federal or state assistance. Such a regime will produce fewer animals, of course, but costs will be far less.

    Shorn of subsidies, most ranchers will discover on their own the economic necessity of fewer livestock on western ranges. The choice will be between making more or less money. In the absence of subsidies that make overgrazing sustainable--from both an economic and ecological perspective--the prudent rancher will opt for the higher net profits that attend lower stocking rates (Holechek, 1993, Hess, 1995, and O'Toole, 1994b). Entrepreneurial stockmen will see that conservative grazing not only diminishes financial and environmental expenses, but that it yields the quality forage needed to produce heavier, more profitable livestock.

    Lighter stocking rates on western ranges promise benefits elsewhere, many of which are not translatable into monetary terms. With fewer livestock and more standing grass, prairie dog expansion will slow or stop. On the mixed-grass prairies of the Badlands National Park where ferrets were recently released, prairie dog colonies have been stable over the years, neither expanding nor contracting. Wildlife biologists attribute this to the light grazing regime of the park's bison (Biggins, 1995 and McDonald, 1995). In contrast, on the adjacent Conata Basin of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, prairie dog numbers have expanded 15-fold over the past two decades--reflecting, in part, heavy cattle grazing (USDA, 1989).

    There are solid and compelling scientific reasons to believe that conservative stocking of cattle and sheep will mimic the results of light bison grazing reported at Badlands National Park (Biggins, 1995). Wildlife biologists on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, for example, are just starting to use lighter stocking rates as the preferred strategy to control prairie dog colonies. According to the most recent prairie dog management plan for the Nebraska National Forest, "livestock numbers [will be set] at levels (long-term) that will leave sufficient vegetation following the grazing season to help control colony expansion and establishment" (USDA, 1989).

    Conservative grazing on nonsubsidized ranges offers even more benefits. Prairie dogs will no longer be seen as range demons to most livestock producers. The political pressures that have historically pitted stockmen against prairie dogs will simply fade away. There will be no economic or political incentive left to pursue what has been to date a costly war to both humans and wildlife. Instead, people will simply learn to live with a natural component of their grassland landscapes.

    On the 2 to 5 percent of the prairie dog's historic range that is still actively colonized, the number of colonies and the population density of prairie dogs may actually decline with good land management and prudent use of forage. More grass, especially on mixed-grass prairies, will discourage prairie dog expansion.

    Potentially, this could be harmful to the black-footed ferret, except for two important factors. First, reduced prairie dog densities are likely to slow the spread of disease and limit the extent of lethal epidemics. Second, conservative grazing will actually increase prairie dog populations on most of the remaining 95 to 98 percent of the prairie dog's historic range.

    In a few areas the black-footed ferret will be worse off, but on the bulk of its range it will enjoy more accessible and usable habitat than it has for nearly a century. And, with at least partial restoration of the prairie dog ecosystem, the black-footed ferret as a species will be more likely to survive the staggering threats that now face it in the guise of genetic complications, disease epizootics, predator explosions, institutional malfunctioning and political firestorms. The ferret's survival will show that endangered species and embattled ecosystems can be saved, and that doing so is best achieved by dismantling the political barriers that historically have stood between people and the land and its wildlife.

    Policy Reform & Private Sector Incentives

    Long-term survival of the black-footed ferret is contingent on meeting two basic requirements. First, there must be a numerically adequate and genetically diverse population of animals for reintroduction. For the ferret, this means captive breeding on a broad and continuing scale.

    Second, there must be a healthy and extensive prairie dog ecosystem in which to release them. Habitat must be sufficiently continuous, complex, and wide-ranging to facilitate genetic diversity, to provide migration corridors, and to buffer ferret populations against cycles of predators and outbreaks of disease.

    These are the minimum conditions for successful ferret recovery and protection. They are not being met. After a decade of intensive and costly efforts by public and private organizations, the black-footed ferret wavers on the brink of extinction. The captive breeding programs at Sybille and allied zoological parks have done a superb job producing sheer numbers of ferrets. They have not, however, matched quantity with quality.

    With few exceptions, the 304 ferrets released to date have not been adequately conditioned to survive the adversities of their new homes; they have not learned the skills needed to cope in a predator-rich environment. More important, the habitat options now available to the black-footed ferret are marginal and, in some instances, simply bad.

    The prairie dog ecosystem remains highly fragmented and drastically reduced, and the incentives of public policy continue to pit ranchers against the prairie dog. As a result, thousands of acres of prime black-footed ferret habitat succumb each year to strychnine, sodium fluoracetate, and zinc and aluminum phosphides. The black-footed ferret persists, but only marginally and then only as a zoological curiosity.

    Saving the black-footed ferret may well be beyond the capability of humankind. The species and its habitat are stretched so thinly that even massive intervention at this point is an uncertain and questionable gamble. The General Accounting Office, for example, has concluded that successful recovery under the Endangered Species Act would be greatly enhanced if key species were prioritized for funding and if detailed recovery plans were laid out and enforced for their protection (USGAO, 1988).

    In the case of the black-footed ferret, a series of recovery plans have been written and implemented over the years, and substantial funding provided at the state and federal levels ever since the ferret's rediscovery at Meeteetse. Yet, millions of dollars and thousands of institutional man-hours have not appreciably changed the long-term prospects of the ferret. Simply stated, more federal and state money, and more and better plans, have not provided the much needed answer to how best save the imperiled ferret.

    A different answer is offered by Tim Clark, a pioneer in the recovery and protection of the black-footed ferret. He argues persuasively that the weaknesses and shortcomings of the ferret recovery program are rooted in organizational dysfunctions, faulty decision-making processes, and a coterie of wildlife managers poorly tutored in public policy and natural resource, problem solving.

    Clark's analysis is grounded in years spent looking for the elusive ferret and even more years researching and writing about its troubled odyssey from rediscovery in 1981 to its current state in 1995. He speaks of bureaucratic barriers to the flow of information, institutional impediments to state-of-the-art recovery, and scientific professionalism compromised by pride and provincial politics. Most of all, he alleges a collapse of critical thinking and a lack of sound analysis of ferret problems, solutions, and goals (Clark, 1992, 1993, 1994c, and Kellert, 1991).

    In many ways, Clark is right: Science and institutions have not worked as well as they should have in the cause of the black-footed ferret. Greater cooperation and sharing among public and private groups involved in ferret recovery would clearly increase the likelihood of success. More and better analysis of the ferret problem and a clearer decision-making process--one that is simultaneously responsive to local needs and national concerns--would undoubtedly bring the issues surrounding the ferret into finer focus.

    Yet Clark's analysis implicitly presumes that better institutions, enlightened managers, and more science are the formula for saving the ferret. Such a presumption, however, flaunts the historical record: It mistakenly assumes that institutions can be more rational, managers more attuned to the public interest, and science more objective in a the midst of a heated political environment.

    Incremental improvements in agencies, managers, and science will not save the ferret from budget cuts or the increasing polarization over public land grazing and the Endangered Species Act. Instead, ferret recovery requires a major overhaul of failed public policies and an exploration of ways in which the ferret could be protected by private sector incentives.

    Successful solutions to the ferret's problems face three major obstacles:

    1. Funding for species recovery is likely to shrink in coming years, and federal and state agencies charged with species recovery are likely to face serious cutbacks in manpower;

    2. Most of the habitat for the ferret is on private land, and recovery must deal with the needs of the owners of the land; and

    3. Most of the threats to the ferret come not from private landowners but from federal policies that give those landowners perverse incentives.

    Thus, saving the ferret requires three major steps:

    1. Reforming the complex array of public incentives that make overgrazing possible and profitable;

    2. Creating new incentives that reward landowners for promoting ferret habitat; and

    3. Streamlining and improving the breeding program so that ferrets will be available at an affordable cost for release into new habitat.

    Rethinking the Endangered Species Act

    Opinions regarding the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act range from unrestrained praise to hostile criticism. Enthusiastic supporters point to it as the heart and the conscience of environmental policy (Barker, 1993), while detractors dismiss it as a welfare system for species (St. Clair, 1995). Between the extremes is the middle-ground of majority opinion, the prevailing conviction that the Endangered Species Act is, on balance, a biological success and, most significantly, that it is an ecological milestone in the evolution of environmental law.

    According to one proponent, the act is "nothing less than a rudimentary bill of rights for nonhumans, an attempt to guarantee a future for as many as possible, even if doing so require[s] real sacrifice on our part." And, except for "the bottleneck" of "lack of money," the act is working admirably as it "has come to touch more of our nation's inhabitants--plant, animal, and taxpayer alike (Chadwick, 1995)."

    Such optimism may be unwarranted. In 1988, the GAO reported that "the agencies have had few measurable successes or failures in the fifteen years since the [Endangered Species Act's] passage" (USGAO, 1988). Of the nine species that have been delisted and judged restored by 1995, several were delisted because new research found that they were never threatened while others were delisted because of actions, such as the banning of DDT, that had little to do with the Endangered Species Act.

    Indeed, there is evidence that the Endangered Species Act has actually impeded species recovery. The black-footed ferret is a prime example. When Lucille Hogg retrieved the dead ferret from her dog, she had no idea what it represented. She judged by its appearance, however, that it was unique and worthy of further inquiry. That's why she took it to the local taxidermist who, in turn, alerted Wyoming Game and Fish that the black-footed ferret had surfaced in Meeteetse, Wyoming.

    Although Lucille Hogg willingly surrendered the dead ferret to state officials, federal agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently threatened to have her charged and arrested for violation of the Endangered Species Act (Clark, 1995b, and Luce and Oakleaf, 1995). This did not sit well with Lucille Hogg, nor did it assuage the fears of local residents that the discovery of an endangered species in their community might eventually endanger their own lives and welfare.

    As a result of federal intimidation, and a growing uncertainty over the implications of having the black-footed ferret in their backyard, the human population of Meeteetse backed-off from cooperating with government officials. Not even the $10,000 reward for confirmed ferret sightings--offered by the New York Zoological Society in the wake of the ferret's 1986 demise on the Pitchfork Ranch--could elicit their support. Biologists at Wyoming Game and Fish report that emotions ran so high in the late 1980s that no amount of money would have broken local silence on the likely whereabouts of additional black-footed ferrets (Luce and Oakleaf, 1995 and Thorne, 1995b).

    Wildlife biologists working in Meeteetse at the time believe that some ferrets survived the 1986 distemper outbreak and that some of the survivors were seen but never reported by local residents because of their fears about the law (Clark, 1995b and Luce and Oakleaf, 1995). These survivors may have been genetically distinct--at least to some relative degree--from the eighteen captive ferrets (Clark, 1994b). If true, invaluable genetic material was lost due to the intimidating regulatory shadow of the Endangered Species Act.

    Private fear of the Endangered Species Act have been partly mitigated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. From the onset of the black-footed ferret's discovery in Meeteetse, the department injected itself as a buffer between Wyoming stockmen and the Fish & Wildlife Service by promising local ranchers security and control of their livestock operations in the midst of ferret recovery (Luce and Oakleaf, 1995). For example, the department convinced the Fish & Wildlife Service to consider reintroduced ferrets as "a nonessential experimental population," which removed many restrictive regulations. (WYG&F, 1991).

    The nonessential designation gave Wyoming Game and Fish the power to 1) relocate ferrets to avoid human conflict; 2) relocate, at landowners request, ferrets that move beyond the reintroduction area onto adjacent but non-participating rangelands; and 3) shield landowners from federal prosecution in cases of unintentional ferret injury or mortality.

    According to the department, nonessential designation allowed landowners to "continue operations and activities associated with their lands without fear of problems that could develop from the potential or actual killing or displacement of an endangered species" as well as "the opportunity to cooperatively decide the number and distribution of prairie dogs (and corresponding ferrets) that may occur on privately owned and leased lands." Landowners also knew that "they will not be forced to place benefits to black-footed ferrets ahead of economic gain and/or stability" (WYG&F, 1991).

    Bill Ellis, owner of the largest ranch within the Shirley Basin, admits that he initially worried that the ferret's release would lead to intrusions into his ranching operation by outside biologists and regulations that might disrupt rangeland improvement and cattle stocking on his private and leased properties. Yet, because of the efforts of Wyoming Game and Fish to defuse fear and misunderstanding, and because of the designation of all released ferrets as a nonessential experimental population, his concerns and those of his fellow stockmen were largely alleviated (1995).

    Charles Scott, a state senator and long-time rancher living on the outskirts of Shirley Basin, concurs with Ellis. He praises Wyoming Game and Fish for its role in securing nonessential designation. Without the agency's efforts, he is certain that local stockmen would have fought--and would likely have stopped--the ferret reintroduction program in central Wyoming. That they didn't, he notes, is attributable to the assurances and protections given to their private property rights and ranching operations by Game and Fish and the regulatory relief allowed under the Endangered Species Act.

    The success of the Shirley Basin reintroduction--at least from the standpoint of public relations--led the Fish & Wildlife Service to also designate the Conata Basin/Badlands and Montana reintroductions as nonessential (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1994a). While the Shirley Basin population was decimated by disease, it is clear that without the voluntary support of Wyoming stockmen, the ferret reintroduction program at Shirley Basin would have aborted long before the onset of plague and distemper epidemics.

    Moreover, without the continuing and expanding support of stockmen in Wyoming and in other western states, it is unlikely that habitat will ever be sufficient to restore an intact and fully functioning prairie dog ecosystem to the American West--an ecosystem sufficiently diverse and geographically expansive to buffer black-footed ferrets from the cataclysms of rampaging disease, genetic abnormalities, and localized human mismanagement and land abuse.

    An important step in saving the ferret, then, is removing the disincentives that make the Endangered Species Act more a weapon of fear to landowners than a tool of hope for imperiled species. The administrative designation of reintroduced ferrets as nonessential experimental populations is a small step that can soften the act's regulatory harshness. But so long as such designations are discretionary, and thus reversible, landowners will fear the threat of eventual regulation and loss of property rights.

    One way to fix this problem is to require compensation of landowners when species protection requires that they modify the use of their land. Economist Richard Stroup argues that endangered species advocates must "recognize that when government takes control of habitat under the Endangered Species Act, a property right has been taken. If such recognition occurs, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to follow the clause in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution that requires compensation when the government takes property" (Stroup, 1995).

    This measure is controversial and, even if enacted, does not guarantee protection of species. The ferret is an example: Although the designation of reintroduced populations as "nonessential" has reduced or eliminated the threat of takings, many ranchers still resist ferret releases, such as in the Thunder Basin and the Buffalo Gap national grasslands. As a result, ferret recovery remains almost exclusively a program of experts rather than private landowners and public-land users--which is why the ferret's habitat is still shrinking.

    Real reform of the Endangered Species Act must focus on gaining private landowner and public-land user support for species restoration and protection. It must allow and encourage entities other than just state and federal to assume responsibility for vanishing species and disappearing habitats. To do this, workable reform must embrace decentralism as the overriding strategy for caring out the national goals of species listing and recovery

    Endangered species policy that is predicated on decentralism means, in turn, that a diversity of ideas and strategies for plant and animal recovery must be tolerated and encouraged. It means that the traditional, top-down direction of species recovery must yield to greater grassroots initiative and involvement. Above all, a policy of decentralism means relying less on the stick of regulation and more on the carrots of incentives.

    Decentralist reform is the primary hope for the recovery and long-term protection of the black-footed ferret. It offers a way to improve the vital ferret breeding program, to restore ferret habitat, and to insulate the ferret from otherwise catastrophic events of plague, distemper, genetic anomalies, and human mismanagement.

    Saving the Black-Footed Ferret Breeding Program

    Captive breeding is the foundation of the black-footed ferret recovery program. Apart from the unlikely discovery of a currently unknown population, the animals now being reared at Sybille and cooperating zoological parks constitute the world's final source of black-footed ferrets. Whatever degree of success the recovery program finally enjoys, it will likely be the genetic outcome of the 18 Meeteetse ferrets rescued in the 1986 distemper epidemic (Seal, 1989).

    Given the habitat constraints facing the black-footed ferret and the genetic and biological hurdles it must repeatedly clear, a continuous infusion of new animals into restored populations may become an inescapable feature of sustained ferret recovery (Clark, 1995b and Thorne, 1995b). This is true even if the black-footed ferret recovery program attains its goal of ten reintroduction sites. Ten sites will not provide the massive prairie dog colonies and migration corridors needed to sustain ferrets without captive breeding.

    None of these facts are disputed by those in charge of the ferret recovery program (Biggins, 1995, Gober, 1995 and Thorne, 1995b). Yet the captive-breeding program is in trouble, particularly at the Sybille research facility where almost half of all ferrets are reared. Two-thirds of the $250,000 annual budget for this facility comes from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department while the other third comes from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Funds, however, are drying up.

    Recent budget cuts in Wyoming threaten to eliminate the state's contribution, and impending budget cuts at the national level may leave little in Fish & Wildlife Service coffers to keep Sybille alive (Gober, 1995 and Madsen, 1995). Indeed, the funding crisis is so severe that Tom Thorne, director of the Sybille ferret-breeding program, has no idea which agency, if any, will be running the facility at the start of the new fiscal year in October, 1995, the date of the last scheduled ferret reintroduction.

    Funding constraints, however, are not the greatest threat to the black-footed ferret breeding effort. Although successful in meeting the population targets set by the 1988 Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan, breeding programs at Sybille and elsewhere have failed to produce the quality of ferret that is needed to seed viable and sustainable wild populations. As indicated above, mortality rates among released ferrets are approaching 100 percent at the Wyoming and South Dakota reintroduction areas.

    Much of that mortality happens in the first two weeks following ferret release into the wild, and most of it is the result of predation, particularly by coyotes. Biologists surmise that captivity-bred ferrets, reared in an environment lacking stress and danger, lack the requisite skills and experience to survive under wild conditions (Clark, 1995a and Hinckley, 1995). Assuming this is true, Sybille and allied rearing centers are falling far short of their prime objective: producing survivable ferrets.

    Randy Matchett, wildlife biologist at the CMR release site, offers a perspective on what is happening with the ferret captive-breeding program. He lists three types of ferrets which have been released at the Montana reintroduction area to date:

    1. Ferrets birthed in foot-square welping cages and then raised in small cages pending reintroduction--what Matchett terms the "dog kennel variety;"

    2. Ferrets reared as above until six weeks of age and then moved into larger dirt pens intended to simulate natural conditions; and

    3. Ferrets birthed and raised in natural conditions at a special facility in Pueblo, Colorado--a facility where ferrets are able to feed, burrow, mate and nest in enclosed portions of an active prairie dog colony (1995b).

    Types one and two are typical of the animals bred and supplied at Sybille and cooperating zoological parks. Type three, however, is experimental--a product of a small-scale breeding program designed and run by Dean Biggins of the National Biological Survey. Data collected so far suggests that ferrets from category three--released exclusively in Montana--are enjoying initial survival rates three times greater than traditionally-reared ferrets (Biggins, 1995, Clark, 1995a, Gober, 1995, and Hinckley, 1995).

    In other words, the way ferrets are bred is far more important than the shear numbers of litters and kits raised. Unfortunately, neither Sybille nor cooperating zoological parks are equipped to birth and raise black-footed ferrets in an environment comparable to Dean Biggin's facility at Pueblo, Colorado.

    Fortunately there are options, one of which was recently proposed by Aron Clark, a biologist with PIC Technology in Denver, Colorado. At a May 1995 meeting of agencies and groups involved with ferret recovery, Clark noted that the Fish & Wildlife Service rules (50 CFR 402, 43 FR 870) require private industry to spend huge amounts of money searching for ferrets along proposed pipeline routes--a search that is likely to be futile. In fact, more money is spent on surveys seeking non-existent ferrets than on the actual recovery program.

    Instead, Clark proposed that survey funds be funneled to higher priority parts of the recovery program (Biggins, 1995 and Gober, 1995). First, private funding could help fund the Sybille breeding facility for several years. Second, and more important, private funding could build and direct a new breeding facility modeled along the lines of Dean Biggin's Pueblo experiment. Constructed around an active prairie dog colony, the new facility would raise ferrets in a natural environment with 10,000 square feet for each breeding pair, giving kits the skills and ability to cope and survive in the wild. Clark estimated that quality ferrets could be reared in such a facility at a fraction of the current estimated cost of $5,000 per animal (Clark, 1995a).

    Central to Clark's proposal is the belief that state and federal agencies lack the means to carry out a long-term commitment to captive breeding--at least in a fashion that is financially sustainable and focused on the rearing of quality ferrets. At a minimum, he believes, the future of ferret captive breeding lies in a partnership between the private individuals and organizations that use land to make a living--such as ranchers and energy and pipeline companies--and the state and federal agencies that oversee resource use.

    Clark is also aware that public budgets will probably shrink in upcoming years, effectively canceling the long-term partnership role of state and federal agencies. That is why he proposes a much smaller partnership made up of traditional land users in the private sector and the member zoological parks of the American Zoological and Aquarium Association. Together, he projects, private industry and the semi-autonomous AZAA can orchestrate a productive and workable breeding program for black-footed ferrets well into the twenty-first century (Clark, 1995a).

    Enthusiasm and support for Clark's solution is strong within the ferret recovery community. Clark makes it clear that a private solution is contingent on major changes in the ferret recovery program. Private industry--the companies he works with through his employer, PIC Technology--will keep Sybille afloat in the short-term and to develop nontraditional breeding facilities in the long-term only if the costly regulations bolstering the ferret recovery program are changed to create an environment conducive to voluntary, private sector help.

    Backed by state and federal wildlife biologists, Clark is calling for a realignment of ferret recovery priorities. Funds now spent on intensive ferret surveys should be invested instead on the crucial program of rearing ferrets for reintroduction. That means that Endangered Species Act and Section 7 compliance regulations must be lifted or amended to give all parties the flexibility to channel money into new and innovative directions for ferret recovery. Relieved of the obligation to pour money into a nonproductive regulatory black hole, Clark insists, industry will have the resources--and the incentive of less intrusive government--to make captive breeding a cost-effective and ecologically-sound project (Clark, 1995a).

    This does not mean giving up on the possibility, however slight it may be, that undiscovered ferret populations still exist. Clark notes that substantial areas of prairie dog grasslands inhabited remain unsurveyed. Yet all recent discoveries of the black-footed ferret have been by chance events--like the episode with Lucille Hogg's dog--and not through rigorous surveys (Clark, 1995a). Recovery cooperators can remain alert to such discoveries without spending huge sums on intensive surveys.

    Although Clark's ideas might be dismissed by some observers as a ploy to relieve industry of responsibility for Endangered Species Act compliance, the broad support that he and his plan enjoy from state and federal wildlife biologists suggests that private direction and public deregulation are credible and attainable objectives. Moreover, Clark's plan is the only serious option now being offered to the shortcomings of traditional ferret breeding and to the financial crisis threatening the future of the Sybille breeding facility.

    If the ferret recovery program is to succeed, it must be open to new and challenging ideas. In the case of Clark's proposal, this means a willingness to explore private initiatives and an equal willingness to give nonregulatory solutions to endangered species recovery a fair chance.

    The Future of Black-Footed Ferret Habitat

    Assuming that quality ferrets can be produced, the long-term fortunes of the species rest squarely on the adequacy of their habitat. Defining what constitutes adequate habitat, of course, is the key issue. In theory, ferret recovery "could be accomplished by managing a single large black-footed ferret population or managing many small black-footed ferret populations as a single metapopulation" (USDI, 1988).

    Managing a single large population would require an immense acreage of contiguous, prairie dog colony complexes--a much larger chunk of intact prairie dog ecosystem than exists today anywhere in the West. Moreover, such a strategy would not guard the ferret against stochastic disease and predation events as well as smaller populations of ferrets spread over a broad range of prairie dog patches.

    So the second alternative, that of managing many small populations, is the only realistic option. This strategy builds resiliency, adaptivity, and flexibility into the species by distributing its members among a diverse collage of prairie dog colony complexes (Seal, 1989). It assumes that the restoration of ferret populations to a minimum number of habitat patches (ten in the 1988 plan) will give the species the biological footing needed for long-term recovery and survival.

    But even given ten small and disconnected ferret populations, the species will remain dangerously susceptible to the random yet catastrophic incursions of disease and cyclical fluctuations of predators. Clearly, more than a handful of habitat patches are needed to boost the black-footed ferret from a permanent ward of human managers to a truly wild and self-sustaining species. Habitat in copious quantities is needed to restore the ferret in a ecologically meaningful sense. "Black-footed ferrets," writes Tim Clark,

    must be managed as a metapopulation. Many prairie dog complexes, each representing a patch of habitat, are needed to support ferret populations of various sizes (most below 200 ferrets), because there are few large prairie dog complexes remaining. Recovery will entail maintaining many small ferret populations over many habitat patches (Clark, 1994b).

    Public policy, to date, has focused on attaining ten sites for reintroduction. So far, only three areas have been selected, and the prospects for additional areas are dim. Public policy has failed for three reasons:

    Current policy assumes that all that is needed is enough ferrets to impose on the land and appropriate regulations and official guardianship to support those ferrets. But the curse of the ferret has never been too few numbers or too few protectors. These are only the symptoms. What has plagued the ferret in the past and plagues it today is an ongoing war on its habitat.

    The crucial question for ferret recovery is not how to breed more and better ferrets, but rather how to enlist the people of the West in its recovery and long-term protection. In places such as Wyoming, for example, the emotional bend of the citizenry is strongly opposed to any new federal programs of species recovery. According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, any attempt today to find fresh habitat for the black-footed ferret would be met by staunch resistance from Wyoming ranchers, energy firms, and gas and oil pipeline suppliers (Oakleaf, 1995).

    Much the same can be said about the private landowners and the public-land users in Montana and South Dakota. The ferrets is no longer welcomed on private land, and even if sufficient public lands existed with prairie dog ecosystems--which is unlikely--transplants still face the political opposition of stockmen and their allies.

    Two steps are needed to regain the support of public land users and private land owners. First, existing policies that provide a disincentive to ferret recovery must be removed. Second, new policies must be established to create positive incentives for the protection of prairie-dog ecosystems.

    Removing Policy Barriers to Ferret Recovery

    The first step in expanding ferret habitat is to change the policies that pit species protection against private interests. This means amending the perverse laws and regulations that promote opposition to ferret recovery as well as eliminating the vast subsidy programs that have either directly damaged the prairie dog ecosystem or indirectly harmed it by fostering abusive land practices. Policies changes fall in three areas:
    Endangered Species Policies
    The Endangered Species Act poses real and perceived threats to private property owners. Release of the ferret as a nonessential experimental population has helped to relieve those threats, and should continue. But that is not enough, as indicated by the strong resistance posed by ranchers against ferret introduction throughout its range.

    To eliminate such resistance, the act itself may need amendment. This could include compensation for some categories of regulatory takings. History shows that any short-term benefits that accrue to listed plants and animals through the threatening or taking of private property will be outweighed in the long-term by private opposition to, or interference with, species recovery.

    Grazing Policies
    After the direct problem posed by hostility to the Endangered Species Act, the most important barriers to ferret habitat protection are the many federal programs that subsidize livestock. Publicly-financed poisoning has made it easy and affordable for ranchers to treat the expanding prairie dog colonies symptomatic of land abuse. Meanwhile, subsidies to range management allow ranchers to ignore the cause of land abuse: chronic overgrazing.

    Federal subsidies that encourage overgrazing should be eliminated. These include the USDA Emergency Feed Program, USDA cost-sharing programs for brush removal and other rangeland improvements, and land management agency subsidization of public-land brush removal and other rangeland improvements. After these subsidies are eliminated, most ranchers will turn to more conservative stocking rates that maximize net profits and, at the same time, allow prairie dogs to coexist with livestock in a way that is beneficial to both ranchers and ferrets.

    Federal subsidization of prairie dog control on private and public lands should also be eliminated, including animal damage control programs of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service as well as Forest Service, BLM, and other land management agency programs. Prairie dog control might continue at the state level, but cutting the federal programs will force state legislatures to reevaluate state laws that list prairie dogs as pests and that mandate their destruction. Livestock operators, in turn, may look to the black-footed ferret as a more efficient means of prairie dog control than poisoning that they have to pay for themselves.

    Tax Policies
    Finally, federal, state, and local taxes that promote fragmentation of prairie-dog ecosystems should be reformed. Inheritance taxes make it costly to maintain large land holdings across generations. Local property tax rates often make land set-asides for environmental protection expensive by subjecting them to higher assessments than lands in agricultural use. Revising both of these policies would help protect prairie dog colonies and the ferret.

    Private Sector Incentives for Black-Footed Ferret Recovery

    Public policy must harness the power of self-interest to the protection of endangered species. Applied to the black-footed ferret, this means developing incentives that will encourage private conservation and preservation. Actions can be taken in four areas:
    Public Land Policies
    In addition to eliminating subsidies to grazing, public land grazing permits should be made transferable to people other than just ranchers and for uses other than just livestock production. Federal agencies and many states limit who can own a grazing permit and to what uses it can be put. Opening up the grazing permit system to market forces will help the ferret in several ways: Public grazing policies can be reformed to reward public-land ranchers who participate in prairie dog ecosystem restoration by: Finally, elimination of the federal prairie dog control programs will free funds that could be channeled instead into conservation grants to stockmen who successfully combine livestock management with preservation of the prairie dog ecosystem (Miller, 1990).
    Endangered Species Policies
    In addition to eliminating the perverse incentives in the Endangered Species Act that encourage landowners to destroy habitat, the law could be amended to create new incentives to promote habitat improvements. This could be done in several ways.

    First, a national biodiversity trust fund could be created that is financed from a share of public-land user fees--which presumably have been increased to fair market value. Grants from the fund would be made available on a competitive basis to any individual or group engaged in biodiversity projects, including species restoration and preservation. Specific uses of trust fund dollars for the ferret might include:

    A second option is the creation of a private foundation to reward private landowners and public-land users who successfully manage their rangelands for prairie dog recolonization and ferret recovery. Foundation support could be used to acquire conservation easements or rent portions of private land for ferret protection. Such funds might also be used to privately-compensate landowners or public-land ranchers for loss of rights or privileges caused by the listing, reintroduction, and protection of the black-footed ferret.

    A third option is an amendment to the Endangered Species Act that creates a public program of adoption and stewardship of endangered species. This program, when voluntarily coordinated with private landowners and public-land users, would encourage and facilitate a broad range of private groups to become actively involved in recovery and protection of the black-footed ferret and its associated prairie dog ecosystem. Such a program would generate substantial tax savings and would reduce the burden of species listing and recovery that might otherwise be shouldered exclusively by private landowners and public-land ranchers.

    Tax Policies
    In addition to eliminating the tax disincentives listed above, a set of tax credits could be created for landowners who promote endangered species recovery. For example: Any of these taxes would cost the respective governments by reducing their tax revenues. A cost-free tax proposal would be to assess a special tax on rodenticides that are used for prairie dog eradication. Revenues from the tax could be used to fund ferret conservation and prairie dog ecosystem restoration. Ranchers who poisoned prairie dogs would, in spite of themselves, be aiding ferret restoration.
    State Wildlife Policies
    The most successful endangered species recovery in history was the recovery of elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, and other game species. Shortly after the turn of the century, many of these species were near extinction. But when states began to regulate them as game animals, and state wildlife agencies were rewarded with the revenues from license sales, the populations of these species exploded.

    Black-footed ferrets are probably not suitable as game species, at least for the foreseeable future. But prairie dogs are. In fact, sports shooting of prairie dogs is already a popular recreational activity on prime ferret habitat in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.

    In the Conata Basin of western South Dakota, for example, prairie dogs provided 46,000 hunter-days of recreation in 1985 (Uresk, 1987). The South Dakota Department of Tourism and Department of Game, Fish and Parks have promoted prairie dog hunting in their various publications (USDA, 1989). The sport has become so popular that national forest and grassland officials reduced their prairie dog poisoning programs in 1989 to accommodate demands of sportsmen for increased prairie dog hunting opportunities (McDonald, 1995 and USDA, 1989).

    For an individual prairie dog, there may seem to be little difference between shooting and poisoning. But for the species as a whole, there is a vast difference. An emphasis on hunting rather than poisoning turns the management goal from prairie dog eradication to sustaining and expanding viable populations of prairie dogs (Biggins, 1995 and Gober, 1995).

    Managed sport hunting can benefit ranchers as well as the prairie dog ecosystem. Montana researchers report that controlled shooting in a portion of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland slowed annual prairie dog colony expansion from 15 percent to 3 percent. While this may seem to be a loss for the prairie dogs, they actually benefited because the Forest Service reduced its poisoning program. Researchers also noted that the shooting of prairie dogs generated an estimated $3.2 million of annual income to the local economy (USDI, 1993).

    To lead to genuine recovery, hunting must be carefully regulated by the states that own the wildlife and the entities that own the habitat. Currently, prairie dog hunting on public land is largely free and unrestricted. Unlimited access could lead to excessive hunting pressure and jeopardize prairie dog populations.

    Unrestricted hunting has also generated opposition by some public-land ranchers, who receive no benefit and pay the costs of any harassment or damage to their stock (Clark, 1989b and WYG&F, 1991). Free hunting on public land also reduces or eliminates any incentive private landowners may have to use prairie dogs as an alternative revenue source.

    State and federal wildlife regulations could create powerful incentives promoting the expansion of prairie dog ecosystems and ferret habitat. The following actions should be taken to take advantage of the demand for prairie dog hunting:

    In addition to hunting revenue, it may be possible for public land managers and private landowners to collect income from other prairie-dog ecosystem recreation. As noted, several species of rare birds use this ecosystem. Fees for wildlife viewing, wildlife photography, and allied eco-tourism activities would help promote restoration efforts.


    In less than a century, humans reduced black-footed ferret from a population of millions of animals covering millions of acres to as few as eighteen individuals on one ranch in Wyoming. This resulted directly from a century of ill-informed public policies--policies which, for the most part, remain in place today.

    The Endangered Species Act, which was supposed to reverse this policy, instead applied band aides that, as often as not, made the situation worse. Under the law, federal and state agencies have invested more than $12 million to date to recover the ferret. The main achievement has been the captive rearing and release of several hundred ferrets, 98 percent of which were almost immediately killed by predators or disease.

    At most, government activity has forestalled the extinction of the black-footed ferret. That is a significant achievement given the many threats to the species survival. However, even that modest achievement is now threatened by agency budget reductions. Moreover, the Endangered Species Act and its enforcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be damaging, more than they are helping, the national ferret recovery program.

    For these reasons, new strategies to save the black-footed ferret are imperative. These strategies should focus on three areas:

    There are, of course, no miracle solutions to the predicament of the black-footed ferret. Its current fate is the product of more than a century of ill-informed public policy. But the current Congress seems willing to completely reevaluate those policies. Rather than resist such a reevaluation, advocates of endangered species should join and promote it to insure that the results will be best for wildlife, the land, and the people for generations to come.


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    Biggins, Dean. Interview, Fort Collins, CO, 26 May 1995. Dr. Biggins is wildlife biologist in charge of black-footed ferret studies, National Biological Survey.

    Clark, Aron. Interview, Denver, CO, 6 July 1995a. Mr. Clark is wildlife biologist with PIC Technology. He is intimately involved with the black-footed ferret recovery effort in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.

    Clark, Tim W. Interview, Yale University, Hartford, CT, March 17 and April 8-9; Jackson, WY, May 29, 1995b. Dr. Clark has spent much of his life studying prairie dog ecosystems and seeking remnant populations of black-footed ferrets. He was at Meeteetse from the onset of the ferret's discovery and has since written dozens of articles, monographs and books on the ferret, endangered species recovery, and related issues of institutional functioning.

    Ellis, Bill. Interview, Shirley Basin, WY, 2 July 1995. Mr. Ellis is a rancher and landowner adjacent to the Shirley Basin/Medicine Bow ferret reintroduction area and a member of the Shirley Basin Working Group that provides oversight on the Wyoming ferret program.

    Gober, Pete. Interview, Pierre, SD, 11 July 1995. Dr. Gober is director of black-footed ferret recovery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Hinckley, Dan. Interview, Billings, MT, 26 May and 10 July, 1995. Mr. Hinckley is endangered species biologist for the Montana Bureau of Land Management and is actively involved in the north-central Montana black-footed ferret recovery program.

    Luce, Bob. Interview, Lander, WY, 30 May 1995. Mr. Luce is non-game mammal biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He has been a key figure in Wyoming black-footed ferret recovery since 1988.

    Matchett, Randy. Interview, Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, MT, 10 July 1995b. Mr. Matchett is wildlife biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is assigned to reintroduction and management of the black-footed ferret on the CMR Wildlife Refuge.

    McDonald, Peter. Interview, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall, SD, 30 June 1995. Mr. McDonald is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an active participant in the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret in the Conata Basin/Badlands site.

    Oakleaf, Bob. Interview, Lander, WY, 30 May 1995. Mr. Oakleaf is coordinator of black-footed ferret recovery in Wyoming for the Wyoming Fish and Game Department. He has directed recovery efforts since 1987.

    Scott, Charles. Interview, Shirley Basin, WY, 3 July 1995. Mr. Scott is a rancher and landowner adjacent to the Shirley Basin/Medicine Bow ferret reintroduction area and a member of the Shirley Basin Working Group that provides oversight on the Wyoming ferret program. He is also a Wyoming State Senator.

    St. Clair, Jeffery. E-mail communication, 24 July, 1995. Editor of Wild Forest Review.

    Thorne, E. Tom. Interview, University of Wyoming, Laramie, 29 May 1995b. Dr. Thorne is a veterinarian for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He is also coordinator for captive breeding of the black-footed ferret in the state.

    Turnell, Jack. Interview, Meeteetse, WY, 3 July 1995. Mr. Turnell is owner of the Pitchfork Ranch--the site of the now-extinct, Meeteetse black-footed ferret population.

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