GREAT FALLS – Officials plan to release 30 endangered black-footed ferrets at Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation next month.
Mark Azure of Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife tells the Great Falls Tribune the ferrets will be released into 1,000 acres of active prairie dog towns on Oct. 3.
Officials are trying to bolster populations, but say the state’s last surviving population of ferrets at the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge has fallen to a handful of animals.
The reintroduction next month is part of a bigger effort to restore ferrets across the West. Tribal officials, Azure said, hope to “put back what we had a hand in getting rid of. I wouldn’t say we completely wiped them out, but I think man played a huge part in why they are on the endangered species list. So I think it’s a good cause.”
The reintroduction at Fort Belknap is being made by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventres tribes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“The single-largest issue with ferret recovery at the national level is there are not enough sites with prairie dogs for ferrets,” says Kristy Bly, species restoration specialist for World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program in Bozeman. “So getting Fort Belknap up and running is key.”
The UL Bend is part of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge about 50 miles from Fort Belknap. Earlier this month, officials counted three or possibly four ferrets.
Randy Matchett, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called those results dismal.
“Six months to a year from now, we would be lucky to have one or two left of those three or four,” he said.
Previous counts found 25 ferrets in 2010, 20 in 2011 and 18 in 2012. Officials are uncertain of what’s behind the decline.
“We just don’t know,” Matchett said. “We just know that they are not there. It’s puzzling.”
Matchett said the two biggest factors involved in successful reintroductions are slyvatic plague and the size of the prairie dog town. Ferret reintroductions started in Montana in 1994 at UL Bend.
“In the state the size of Montana it sure would be nice if we could establish one viable black-footed ferret population somewhere in the state,” Matchett said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says prairie dogs were wiped out from most of their range due to plowing and poisoning. Sylvatic plague, likely introduced into the United States from rats from Asia, has also cut into populations.
The 30 ferrets being released next month were raised by Fish and Wildlife in a captive breeding facility in Colorado. Before the release, they learn how to hunt and kill prairie dogs in the wild, Bly said.