Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation—Ferret Style, Part One

The recent kafuffle with Cassie Edwards’ alleged plagiarism sparked my interest NOT because of the…kafuffle itself, but because of an extremely thin thread that sort of leads to me. (Yes, yes, it’s all about me. Just keep reading.)

It’s alleged that in her book Shadow Bear, Ms. Edwards allegedly used information about black-footed ferrets found in an article by the Defenders of Wildlife. Because I worked with black-footed ferrets, I was interested in seeing what the article said. Hey, I’m still a biologist at heart, what can I tell you.

The article is from the summer of 2005, out of South Dakota. I didn’t recognize the names mentioned in the article, but I was involved in the initial release in Shirley Basin, WY, back in 1991. In ’91, our first assignment was assessing potential release sites for the ferrets. Somewhere they could find food and shelter, and eventually each other for wild breeding (versus the captive breeding program—but that’ll be addressed in a different post, if I remember). Ferrets hunt prairie dogs, so we looked for areas of high prairie dog populations. Not an easy task since, as the article mentions, prairie dogs were virtually wiped out by ranchers. How did we determine acceptable population densities? We counted prairie dog poop. And avoided snakes. Mostly.

Summer 1991: The Wyoming Prairie

First thing in the morning, our research group--biology grunts, mostly fresh out of or still in college--meets in one of the travel trailers we occupy in a trailer court in Shirley Basin, WY. I’m one of two women in the group of six. Kim and I share one good-sized trailer, the guys share another plus a smaller trailer. (Sorry, I can’t recall where everyone slept.) Pat, our leader, assigns us our search areas for the day. There’s a lot of land to cover. A lot. Glen and I are given areas near each other so we share one of the trucks and head out to our sites. Glen drops me off with my equipment on top of a plateau, saying he’ll be back about lunch time to see how it’s going. We have no radios, but I can see his site down below mine.

I get to work putting my transect wheel together. The wheel has a handle, a distance counter and a two meter long metal bar secured cross-wise. My job is to walk up and down my site, making transects of however many meters so long by two meters wide. As I walk, I use another counter to count prairie dog scat (which looks like large hamster turds) that fell within the two meter width of the transect. I did quite a bit of walking that summer and got into great shape : )

So, I’m trundling up and down the prairie, counting poop and keeping an eye out for snakes. Yes, we were in rattlesnake country, and I hated that part of it. Like all good little mammals, snakes bring out an immediate “GAH! Get away! Get away! Get away!” reaction in me. I call it a survival technique, my husband calls it a phobia. Potatoes, potahtoes. Either way, I’m on alert because I have to go past much sage and other small shrubbery as well as approach and, theoretically, cross a rocky outcropping further along to do my job. Where do snakes like to hang out? Under shrubbery and on rocky outcroppings, depending on the temperature.

And yes, as I’m about half way through my site, I see serpentine movement out of the corner of my eye. In the area I have yet to cover. In the direction I will soon be heading. I stop and turn my head. The 3' snake is perhaps ten feet away and slightly in front of me.

“Move along, snake,” I say to it. “I need to go over there and I know you’re as afraid of me as I am of you.” Though I doubted the “more afraid of me” thing. I just said it to make myself feel better and to let the snake know I had seen him.

The snake doesn’t move for a moment then slithers toward the area I’d already covered. I repress a shudder but I’m relieved. Yay! And apparently I speak snake. That could come in handy.

Still cautious, because where there’s one snake, there are usually more, I continue walking and counting. As I approach the rocky outcropping, I slow down and take careful inventory of what’s around me. No telltale rattle, thank goodness. In fact, I’ve never heard a rattlesnake rattle in real life. I take a step, look, take another, look, glance up, and my heart stops. Right in front of me, sunning itself on the rocks is a five foot long rattler. It looks at me and wags its forked tongue. I don’t know if it rattled because I screamed.

to be continued....



At 11:00 AM, Blogger Writer & Cat said...



At 11:54 AM, Blogger Cathy in AK said...

Heheh. I wish. Unfortunately, I think I only spoke pidgin parseltongue, as other attempts to negotiate with snakes had been unsuccessful. Not that there were many : )

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn, Damn, Damn, someone beat me to the parseltongue comment.

Nice hook by the way.

Last time I saw a snake, it was curled up on the brick of our screen porch in South Carolina. Fortunately, just a harmless black snake variety, but since I have the of snakes you have, I did the first thing I could think of which was call my husband...who happened to be in Seattle at the time.

Needless to say, he wasn't a big help. Unless you want to call tossing out the comment of, "don't worry, it's probably just having babies...lots and lots of babies" helping. :)

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Cathy in AK said...

Amy, my loving husband would have said the same thing : ) I just chalk their attitudes up to a deep, deep denial of their own serpentine fears. But since we gals seem to have the *right* reaction, our survival instincts are clearly more honed.


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