Outdoor Notes : Rare Ferrets Threatened by Distemper

An outbreak of canine distemper is threatening the entire population of one of North America’s rarest mammals, the black-footed ferret.

The small, weasel-like animal that once flourished in the flatlands of the Rocky Mountain states, was thought to be extinct until a small colony was discovered in 1981 near Cody, Wyo.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists, who had estimated the ferret population on several thousand acres of western Wyoming ranch lands at about 130, are fearing the worst.

The disease appeared recently in two of six animals captured this year for a captive breeding program. One animal died of the disease and another is seriously ill. The remaining four have been isolated and are being watched closely.


Biologists fear that the ferrets picked up distemper in the wild, which, if true, threatens the entire known population of the species. Federal biologists say North America’s two rarest mammals are black-footed ferrets and Florida panthers.

Wyoming biologists are certain that the ferret that died, a male, was exposed to distemper in the wild, since it died shortly after being captured. The incubation period for canine distemper is 7 to 21 days.

Said Dave Belitsky, who coordinates the black-footed ferret project for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department: “We know we’ve lost some ferrets, but we’re at the point right now where we don’t know how many. The four ferrets we have in captivity that we think were exposed to distemper have only four or five days left in the disease’s incubation period. Right now they’re healthy. We have our fingers crossed.”

No one knows how distemper entered the ferrets’ environment. Since it was known that the little nocturnal animals were particularly susceptible to distemper, researchers avoided contact with strange dogs several days before working in ferret areas. They also worked with surgical masks when handling captured ferrets.


Symptoms of the disease in ferrets are extremely difficult to detect, since an infected ferret retreats to its burrow, where it dies.

The State Fish and Game Commission has tentatively approved 1986 sportfishing regulations. Among the changes which are scheduled to be adopted at the commission’s Dec. 6 meeting in Sacramento:

--A 12-inch size limit for largemouth bass at most state waters.

--Standardization of size and bag limits for striped bass that would provide for a 2-fish, 18-inch limit for most state waters.


--Opening of the entire All-American Canal and all waters west of the Salton Sea to fishing.

--The opening of several waters to the use of dead ocean fish as bait, including Lake Isabella and its tributaries.

More than $167 million in sport fish and wildlife restoration funds have been apportioned to the states by the Interior Department, funds raised by the Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson programs.

Dingell-Johnson provides for excise taxes on fishing gear and money from motorboat fuels. California’s 1986 portion: Exactly $4 million, the same as Alaska and Texas. States are directed to spend the money for game fish enhancement projects.


Pittman-Robertson funds come from an 11% excise tax on sport arms and ammunition, some archery gear and a 10% tax on pistols and revolvers. Funds raised go to wildlife enhancement work and hunter safety instruction. California’s 1986 share: $3,400,000.

Briefly A tentative opening date of Nov. 23 has been set for 1985-86 waterfowl hunting at Kern National Wildlife Refuge, according to refuge manager Tom Charmley. . . . The American Animal Hospital Assn. recommends that hunters preparing their dogs for waterfowl seasons increase the fat content in their dogs’ diets, building up to a 25%-35% fat level, to provide more energy. . . . Don Nygord, La Crescenta, won the men’s air pistol and free pistol events at the recent Shooting Championships of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga. . . . David Gordon of Wayland, Mass., won the recent Coors-Op World Jet Ski Championship at Lake Havasu.