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Save the Black Footed Ferrets

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Saving the Black-footed Ferret Groups Seek Endangered Protection for Critically Endangered Animal Denver, CO—WildEarth Guardians, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and the Center for Native Ecosystems filed a petition today asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant three black-footed ferret populations true “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act. Once extinct in nature, black-footed ferrets remain one of the most endangered animals in North America largely due to the loss of their habitat: prairie dog colonies and their primary food source: prairie dogs. As many as one million ferrets once lived on prairie dog towns in the Great Plains and intermountain grasslands of the West. Now, approximately 800 adults struggle to survive and reproduce in tiny, isolated pockets of their former range. The conservation groups today formally petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to restore full endangered status to the three most viable reintroduced ferret populations that occur on public land: those in Conata Basin (South Dakota), Shirley Basin (Wyoming), and Aubrey Valley (Arizona). “Black-footed ferrets are on life-support,” stated Lauren McCain, Prairie Protection Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Without full protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, these animals will remain on the cusp of extinction.” Though the black-footed ferret is technically designated as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, no ferrets are actually protected as endangered in the wild. Only captive ferrets benefit from full federal protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service implemented rules that exempt all reintroduced ferret populations from receiving full protection under the Endangered Species Act. These rules designate the ferrets as “experimental” and “nonessential” to the survival of the species. All 18 known wild ferret populations were established from captive animals held in zoos and research facilities. Lack of protection means ferrets face continued preventable threats, such as the loss of their prey-base and habitat due to prairie dog poisoning and shooting that is allowed within ferret recovery areas. The agency considers only three of these populations to be self-sustaining by the standard of 30 or more breeding pairs. Our petition asks that the Fish and Wildlife Service extend Endangered Species Act protection for these three populations on the public land areas where they exist. These areas include Bureau of Land Management land in Shirley Basin, Wyoming; South Dakota’s Conata Basin within the Buffalo Gap National Grassland; and state lands in Aubrey Valley, Arizona. “The ‘nonessential experimental’ status is a loophole that prevents the ESA from taking full effect,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “Granting Endangered Species protection only to ferrets in captive breeding facilities is an absurd failure in our stewardship responsibilities toward wildlife at risk of dying out.” “Our petition proposes a modest yet crucial step for black-footed ferret recovery,” added McCain of WildEarth Guardians. “Classifying these three reintroduced populations as endangered will give the Fish and Wildlife Service the power it needs to safeguard ferrets and their habitat.” Black-footed ferrets are long-bodied mammals in the weasel family and known for their distinctive black legs and black eye masks. There historic range overlaps with the ranges of three of the five prairie dog species in North America. These include black-tailed prairie dogs of the Great Plains; Gunnison’s prairie dogs of the four-corners region of the southwest; and white-tailed prairie dogs in northwest Colorado, western Wyoming, northeastern Utah, and a small sliver of southern Montana. The Shirley Basin ferret population is in the white-tailed prairie dog range, the Conata Basin within the black-tailed range, and Aubrey Valley within Gunnison’s prairie dog territory. Prairie dogs make up about 95% of the ferret diet. Ferrets sleep, breed, and birth in prairie dog burrows. Within the last 150 years, prairie dogs have lost 92-99% of their historically occupied habitat. Prairie dogs continue to suffer from human persecution and are routinely poisoned, shot for fun not food, and bulldozed to make way for urban- and suburbanization. Prairie dogs also die from plague, a disease introduced to North America by humans in the early 1900s. Plague can kill 100% of a colony’s prairie dogs within a few days. The disease is also fatal to ferrets, who are also susceptible to the deadly distemper virus. Additionally, oil and gas exploration and extraction can degrade their habitat. Black-footed ferrets are incredibly vulnerable to extinction given their dependence on declining prairie dog populations, sensitivity to disease, and persistent human threats to the animals and their habitat. “Black-footed ferret recovery should be a national priority,” stated Erin Robertson, Senior Staff Biologist with Center for Native Ecosystems, “The status quo will not achieve this. The ferret recovery program deserves a few sites where efforts to conserve the species are not continuously being undermined.” The Conata Basin situation stands as a stunning example of government economic and public lands mismanagement at its worst. For example, when plague hit the Conata Basin ferret population for the first time in 2008, the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and conservation organizations tried to prevent the disease from spreading by dusting prairie dog burrows with insecticide. Yet, the Forest Service has also poisoned prairie dogs on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland every year since 2004. In 2008, the Forest Service poisoned and dusted. This demonstrates the prairie dog/black-footed ferret paradox occurring on all ferret recovery sites. In the Conata Basin case the conflict is between the Fish and Wildlife Service—responsible for preventing wildlife extinction, and the Forest Service—responsible for protecting our national forests and grasslands while also promoting agricultural and extractive interests. “The U.S. Government spends millions of our tax dollars trying to rescue Endangered ferrets, which are on the verge of extinction,” stated McCain. “Yet, it spends even more to kill off the ferret’s food source and habitat creator: the prairie dog. It’s a constant tug-of-war.” Contact Lauren McCain at or 720-563-9306 for a copy of the petition, black-footed ferret photos, and maps of their historic range and reintroductions sites.

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