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Conservation groups sue over status of black-footed ferrets

Photo: A black-footed ferret peeks out of a prairie dog burrow in 2016 on the Crow Reservation. Three conservation groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to return management of the species to the federal government.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Billings Gazette

Even though the black-footed ferret, North America’s only native ferret species, is still classified as endangered, the agency delegated responsibility for the species to the state in 2015. It declared the state an “experimental population area” and its ferrets “nonessential” for species recovery, easing the animals’ protections under the Endangered Species Act.

“This new rule is a good fit for Wyoming because it builds on voluntary efforts by landowners and recognizes the role they play in species conservation,” Scott Talbott, former director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said of the designation in 2015. “The final rule should have positive impacts on black-footed ferrets, and Wyoming can continue to play a leading role in the conservation of this species.”

The federal lawsuit, led by environmental nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, criticizes the rule and calls for oversight of “perhaps the rarest, most imperiled mammal in North America” to be returned to the federal government.

“What this rule does, the reason I think the rule really stretches that provision to the breaking point, is that the state of Wyoming demanded, and the service acquiesced, to relax those protections without any assurance that reintroductions would actually take place,” said Joe Bushyhead, endangered species policy advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

A single reintroduction has taken place since the state was granted management of the species. That perceived lack of reintroductions, coupled with the proposed rollback of protections for a previously reintroduced population in Thunder Basin National Grassland, motivated the group to challenge Wyoming’s arrangement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bushyhead said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the case.

Black-footed ferrets live inside prairie dog colonies; prairie dogs constitute more than 90% of the ferrets’ diet. During the first half of the 20th century, as prairie dogs’ numbers plummeted, so did ferrets’. The species was believed to be extinct until a single surviving ferret population was discovered in Wyoming in the 1980s.

Captive breeding and reintroduction programs, including a particularly successful effort at Shirley Basin, revived the species, but its status remains precarious. Prairie dogs are estimated to inhabit as little as 5% of their former range, and existing colonies continue to be threatened by poisoning, shooting and disease.

“Sylvatic plague will wipe out huge numbers of prairie dogs, and the prairie dog populations are oftentimes resilient enough to rebound,” Bushyhead said. “But ferret populations — the much smaller populations within prairie dog complexes — have really not proven resilient enough in many situations.”

Though sizable prairie dog populations are vital for self-sustaining ferret populations, the grass-eating rodents’ unpopularity among ranchers complicates conservation efforts. Prairie dogs are defined by the state as non-game animals, and can be killed year-round without a license.

The conservation groups contend that lethal prairie dog management practices jeopardize ferrets’ survival. They want to see protections expanded for some Wyoming prairie dog colonies.

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