Ferrets in the Field--Ferrets, Part Five
Previously on "Ferrets": Cathy trundled through the Wyoming plains searching for prairie dog poo and narrowly avoiding rattle snakes; a stint at the Sybill facility, where black-footed ferrets were bred to increase their population and prepare them for release, showed that even captive-born ferrets retained the instinct and drive necessary for survival. Caught up? If not, scroll down to the previous entries. They're good, so I'm told : )
Now that we knew the ferrets had the ability to take care of themselves out in the big, wide world, it was time to prepare them and the selected release sites. We didn't just open the doors at the Sybill facility and say, "There ya go, kids! Good luck and God bless!" This is science, people, which means there is painstaking study and discussion, gobs of paperwork, and a lot of us grunts standing around waiting for the folks in charge to tell us what to do. It's a lot like any other job, but with poo and chopping up prairie dog carcasses.
The idea was to set up cages at the release site where the ferrets remained contained and fed by us as they acclimated to the outdoors for about a week. Remember, these ferrets were born and raised inside a building. A very nice building, but it was climate controlled and their every need was met. The cages were about a meter by a meter cube, on legs with a PVC tube running from the bottom. Initially, access to the tube was blocked; we didn't want the little beasties getting out too soon. There was also a nest box within the cage, like the ones in Sybill, where we could shut the ferret inside to clean the cage and feed it while it acclimated.
The ferrets themselves were also prepared. After they were captured in their cages at Sybill (I'm not sure what method the handlers used for that but I'm betting it was a hell of a job. Ferrets are fast and feisty), the ferrets were fitted with radio-collars so we could track their movements once they left the field cages. Nowadays, I think they implant little chips under the ferrets' skin. Back in 1991, the technology wasn't there, or wasn't cost effective, so the old fashioned collars were what we used. They looked uncomfortable to me, and there is always concern that slapping a collar on critter will impede its natural movements and ability to survive, but controlled testing seemed to indicate the ferrets weren't adversely affected. I think we placed ten ferrets initially, and another ten later, but I can't recall.
So, you have a cube on legs with a tube running out of the bottom in the middle of a Wyoming field. Inside is a very confused ferret wearing the latest in biological bling. Outside the cage, sitting in a small trailer some distance away, a bevy of biologists checking the pings of radio signals. Each ferret was on its own frequency that we had to follow. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was in charge of following the ferrets' signals, while we state workers got to clean the cages and feed the ferrets. Both aspects were fun and interesting, and we buddied to let each faction get a chance to do tracking and cleaning so no one felt "cheated."
Oh, did I mention the brouhaha of media attention? I didn't? Oh, man. Well, for Wyoming it was a HUGE event. There was local coverage coming out our ears. There was a big party with the governor and the higher ups of local, state, and federal agencies who'd worked on getting the ferret program up and running. (No, we grunts didn't attend. WE were working. Plus, most of us preferred to be with the ferrets.) But it didn't stop there. The national spotlight fell on Shirley Basin, as did the international. I was a blip on a CNN piece (my dad even recorded it for me; I still have the tape), and I know of at least one visit by a British reporter. Glen and I spent the day saying, "Bloody 'ell" until our boss gave us the stink eye.
But the most "interesting" encounter with the media came from a wildlife show. I won't name names, but after hearing this (and it was only through a second or third party that I heard, so this is TOTAL rumor) I gained a whole new perspective on how these shows are made. It seems that one of the ferrets was getting its radio-collar adjusted while this person was around filming. The ferret, of course, was unconscious for the procedure. Which makes sense and was perfectly safe. So Mr. "Wild" wants shots of the ferret. While it's unfettered by a cage. Up close so it looks good for his show. Um, problem. (A), this particular little guy wasn't slated to be fully released yet. (B), he (the ferret, not the guy) was coming out of the anesthesia, half drugged and not particularly happy. Oh, says Mr. "Wild," can't you just have him in the grass here for just a minute? Um, no. Mr. "Wild" wasn't thrilled that we didn't comply with his request. Too bad, bucko.
Once the ferrets were used to the great outdoors, we removed the slat blocking the tube that led to the ground. They were free to come and go as they pleased. To make sure they didn't starve in those first days, and to give them a safe place to return to in case of predation, we put prairie dog bits in the cages and checked each day to see if it was eaten. This, in conjunction with the tracking, told us if the ferrets were sticking around. Some left the cages and never looked back. Others came and went for a few days then struck out on their own.
Tracking of the ferrets continued for some time after they left their cages for good. But not all of them made it. Loss is calculated and expected in a program like this, but each time a signal remained stationary for too long, my heart sank a little. Someone would go out with a handheld receiver to find the collar. Once or twice it was just the collar, and we had no idea if the ferret it belonged to merely slipped out or was killed. Other times, sadly, a body was found.
Despite the losses, I was thrilled to be part of this program. A species on the brink of extinction has been given the chance to re-establish itself in its native habitat. Not in a zoo, not in a breeding facility. Out on the open plains, hunting prairie dogs and dodging predators. There is still a lot of work to be done to keep the black-footed ferret program up and running. Go to Defenders of Wildlife or the black-footed ferret recovery program site (or to your favorite critter site to help some other species) to see more about the great work being done.
This is the final installment of my ferret-related adventures, though I have a few other non-ferret stories, I'm sure ; ) It's been fun sharing them and remembering one of the best times of my career as a wildlife biology grunt. Thanks for coming along for the ride.