Ferrets Slinking Back From Brink of Extinction in U.S.

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Black-tailed prairie dogs tend to live in highly sought after agricultural and ranching areas, where landowners often blame them for damaging crops and grazing land.

Consequently, conflicts arise and large-scale eradication programs have often ensued.

(Related: "Prairie Dogs Poisoned by U.S. in South Dakota" [October 26, 2004].)

Last month environmental groups petitioned the U.S. government to place the black-tailed prairie dog on the Endangered Species List.

A previous attempt in 1998 failed.

Alan Pollom of The Nature Conservancy's Kansas City field office is encouraged by the findings of the Shirley Basin ferret study.

But, he added, prairie dog colonies must be allowed to remain if ferrets are to survive.

"If you're going to have a lot more ferrets, you need a lot more prairie dogs," Pollom said. "There seems to be no way to get around that equation."

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Experts believe about 700 black-footed ferrets live in the wild.

Of the 13 ferret reintroduction sites, located in six Western states, only three have white-tailed prairie dog colonies. (In addition to Wyoming, the other colonies are in Colorado and Utah.)

In Shirley Basin, Buskirk said, conflict with ranchers is much lower than elsewhere because there's no crop production.

The ferret reintroduction project there has been embraced by private landowners, many of whom are willing to have the small mammals introduced on their property, he said.

"It's really changed from 15 years ago," Buskirk said.

"Fifteen years ago it was just a deal-breaker. Now a lot of ranchers are saying: Go ahead put them out there. Just don't cause a lot of fuss with research or monitoring activities."

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