Black-Footed Animal, Once Believed Extinct, Has Surfaced in Wyoming; Curiosity-Seekers Head for Meeteetse : Mysterious Ferret Has 'Em Guessing

Times Staff Writer

At about 3 a.m. on Sept. 26, 1981, cattle rancher John Hogg and his wife, Lucille, were awakened by furious barking by their dog just outside the bedroom window.

"I figured Shep got in a tangle with a porcupine, so I went back to sleep," Hogg recalled recently.

Later that morning, Hogg investigated. He found the carcass of a strange little animal. He had never seen one like it before, although he had lived all his life in this part of northwestern Wyoming. Resembling a mink, it had a black mask, black feet and a black-tipped tail. It also had a broken back.

Hogg thought it was a mink. He showed it to his wife, then threw it over the front-yard fence, into a field. Later that morning, Lucille Hogg asked her husband to retrieve the animal, explaining she wanted to take it to a Meeteetse taxidermist for mounting.

When the taxidermist examined the carcass, however, he looked up and said: "I can't touch this. This is an endangered species. It's a black-footed ferret."

The black-footed ferret is one of 23 mammals on the federal list of endangered species. Even though it was on the list before 1981, however, more than a few biologists had given up on the continued existence of the little animal, which is every bit as mysterious as its black mask suggests.

They believed that the ferret, once found in at least 12 plains and western states, was extinct.

Said Dave Belitsky, the biologist in charge of the black-footed ferret advisory team: "We figure it's a tossup right now as to which is the rarest North American mammal--these ferrets or the Florida panther."

Until 1981, no one had seen a black-footed ferret anywhere in North America after 1978. But since Shep encountered Ferret I that morning in 1981, biologists have counted at least 130 of them in a 53-square mile area near this ranch community 20 miles south of Cody, Wyo. About 70% of the ferrets have been found on the 120,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch, but others have been found on property owned by four other area landowners.

With the frequent comings and goings of federal and state biologists, occasional media visitors and wildlife film-makers, at least a mild dose of ferretmania has afflicted Meeteetse.

For instance, the same Lucille Hogg who once wanted a mounted ferret now jokingly lists Ferret Nuggets on the menu at her cafe. The entree really is a chicken dish. She also sponsors a women's softball team called the Ferrettes.

The gas station sells black-footed ferret T-shirts, and someone is said to be working on black-footed ferret postcards. Eventually, biologists figure, a sign will go up at the city limits proclaiming Meeteetse the black-footed ferret capital of the world.

Hogg said that his dog killed the ferret that morning because the ferret was going for scraps in Shep's dish. Misdemeanor? Absolutely not. A federal case.

Belitsky said: "The Meeteetse taxidermist called a Wyoming game warden, who verified it was indeed a black-footed ferret, and he called a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer, since it was a federally endangered species.

"A black-footed ferret advisory team was put together, comprising state and federal people, and landowners on whose property the ferrets were found.

"We had a real mystery at first. Black-footed ferrets are almost entirely dependent on prairie dogs, yet the one killed by the dog turned out to be six miles from the nearest prairie dog habitat. In 1982, one was killed by a car 10 miles from the nearest prairie dog mounds."

Later, biologists theorized that those ferrets may have been scout animals, searching for new habitat. Marine biologists have observed similar activity in California sea otters.

Black-footed ferrets are 21 to 23 inches long and weigh two to three pounds. They're short-legged but have long canine teeth and powerful jaws. It is believed that they kill prairie dogs, which often outweigh them, by biting deep into a prairie dog's throat and holding on until the prairie dog bleeds to death.

Belitsky, showing a reporter a ferret skull in his office, pointed to the half-inch canines.

"Considering this is an inch-and-a-half-long skull, these are immense canines," he said.

Ferrets are almost always found living in prairie dog burrows. Before the mid-19th Century, when cattle ranchers began trying to exterminate prairie dogs, black-footed ferret habitat extended in a band from Saskatchewan and Alberta south across 12 states, almost to Mexico.

Because cattle sometimes broke their legs in prairie dog burrows, however, ranchers began using poisoned grain to kill them, later turning to poison gas. Then, when the grasslands went under the plow, millions of acres of prairie dog habitat were eliminated.

Biologists today believe that black-footed ferrets were never common, even in areas abundant in prairie dogs. Little is said of them in western literature.

The little animals were important enough, however, to have a role in the culture of plains Indians. The Sioux, Blackfeet and Cheyenne used ferret skins in chiefs' headdresses. Sioux medicine men had ferret skins in their medicinal paraphernalia.

"The fact that ferrets were important in plains Indian ceremonies is interesting," Belitsky said. "Does it mean they were rare or common? We don't know."

By the mid-20th Century, when prairie dog populations had plummeted, so too had the colonies of the long, little animal with the black mask. In the late 1960s, the only known ferret population left in America existed on a South Dakota cattle ranch.

In 1972, after it had been studied for several years, that colony simply disappeared.

Today, even after three years of intensive study of the animals around Meeteetse by about two dozen biologists, not a whole lot more is known about them than was known before. Thanks to radio telemetry studies, however, there is new knowledge on the ferrets' activity patterns and range.

Biologists also have learned that the Meeteetse population is more viable than the one studied in South Dakota. "The South Dakota team counted 11 litters in seven years," Belitsky said. "We've counted 20 in one year.

"There are two difficulties trying to learn about ferrets. For one, they're nocturnal. Second, they live underground. It's a real challenge, especially in the winter, when we're camped out there (on the Pitchfork Ranch) when it's 30-below.

"After a lot of effort, we're still weak on basic ferret biology. We still don't know, for example, at what age females bear young. Or how long they live in the wild.

"We have learned that they bear their young in May and that females need a quiet, secure, dry place to raise their young. We also know they're subject to long patterns of inactivity. In 1982, a ferret we'd collared with a small radio ran down a burrow and stayed down for nine straight days. It was wintertime, very cold, and we figured he'd killed a prairie dog and simply stayed down where it was warm and dry.

"One of the reasons why we know golden eagles prey on ferrets is that one killed one of the ferrets we'd collared. When we tracked the signal, all that was left was part of the carcass and the collar.

"An engineer at the university (of Wyoming) is working on a little TV camera for us that can be inserted in their burrows. That will help, if it can be perfected."

Ferrets' above-ground activities have been routinely examined at night by biologists riding the range in vehicles equipped with spotlights. Surprisingly, ferrets don't seem the least bit disturbed by having spotlights shined on them. Belitsky has a video tape containing footage of nighttime ferret behavior, including juveniles frolicking in mock combat.

For all of the mystery surrounding the little animals, they do leave one strong clue to their presence. When they modify a prairie dog burrow, they remove dirt from the burrow in a characteristic trenching pattern, leaving an elongated pile of dirt up to four feet long and perhaps 18 inches wide.

Prairie dogs, evidence suggests, don't even like to be reminded of the presence of ferrets. Said Brian Miller, another biologist on the study team: "Prairie dogs will spread the ferrets' dirt around evenly, as if they're trying to give the appearance the ferrets were never around."

In Kansas, in 1960, a farmer caught a ferret in a trap. Prairie dogs appeared from everywhere, descended on the trapped creature, and killed it.

On the plains, ferrets are hunted by golden eagles, large owls, badgers, foxes and coyotes.

Still, the questions persist:

--Why were black-footed ferrets seldom caught by trappers in the last two centuries?

--Why have no more colonies been found?

Belitsky said: "Someone once researched trappers' records of western states and counted only 12 ferrets caught in traps between 1920 and 1950. We know that a black-footed ferret skin was never considered a prime pelt and that many may have been caught and discarded. Or does it mean they have always been a very rare animal? Or does it mean they're too smart to be trapped? We just don't know, it's a mystery.

"I'm surprised no other ferret populations have turned up. A few years ago, when we began to realize we had a healthy population here, I thought other populations would turn up. But you have to realize Wyoming alone has a million acres of prairie dog habitat and one man can closely look at only about 400 acres a day. And only about a half-dozen people that I know of have looked for ferrets in other parts of the state in recent years."

Jack Turnell, owner-manager of the Pitchfork Ranch and a member of the advisory team, suggests that other ranchers may have observed signs of ferrets on their ranches but have kept it quiet.

"A lot of ranchers would feel uneasy about federal and state people coming and going all the time," he said. "Some might even fear having their ranch shut down to protect an endangered species. It hasn't been a problem for us, it hasn't affected the operation of our ranch. I sort of like the idea of having them (the ferrets) around. I wish I had about 500 of them, since they kill prairie dogs."

The Pitchfork Ranch has seen another species come and go.

"At the turn of the century, this ranch was the home of the last free-roaming bison in the United States," Belitsky said.

Is Meeteetse the last stronghold of the black-footed ferrets?

"We don't know," Belitsky said. "But it does make a good case for a black-footed ferret breeding program, I think. If this is all that's left, then one huge winter could wipe them out. A captive breeding program would give us an option, like the biologists have who work with condors."

Most federal and state biologists agree on the need for some kind of facility where captured ferrets can be bred in captivity. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has approved the spending of $250,000 toward the building of a facility near Laramie.

"Once it was in operation, goals at the facility would be to find out if ferrets would breed in captivity, would the mothers care for the young and, if released, would captive-bred ferrets adjust to life in the wild," Belitsky said.

Capturing the ferrets is not difficult, he added. "It's a simple matter of putting a tubular cage in the prairie dog burrows with a one-way door. They run right into it.

"We tagged 17 ferrets in 1982 and '83 with little radio collars. Trouble is, they have this uncooperative habit of running underground a lot, cutting off the radio signal. However, we did learn a lot about their nightly range above ground and how many different prairie dog burrows they'll enter in a night.

"After about a year of the collar program, we noticed the collars were chafing their necks, so we took them all off."

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