PRYOR — In Crow Indian mythology coyotes are from the Black Hills of South Dakota, cougars are natives of the Musselshell River valley and magpies consider the Ashland country their home.
“The black-footed ferret, my clan uncle told me, is from the Platte River, Casper area,” said Marlin Not Afraid, director of the Crow Fish and Game Department. “On each side of the Platte River is cattails. He said that’s his homeland.”
So to welcome 18 black-footed ferrets transplanted to the Crow Reservation on Wednesday, Not Afraid placed a cattail next to the first burrow where he released a female ferret. The cattail was meant to signify to the ferret this was its new home. Not Afraid also spoke to all of the ferrets in his native Crow language, welcoming the small mammals to his wild homeland.
“Welcome back to Crow Nation, little ferret!” yelled Kristy Bly, the enthusiastic cheerleader of the project and a biologist for the World Wildlife Fund, after Not Afraid cautiously released the first chattering ferret from its pet carrier.
“They are always very chatty when we release them,” said Jessica Alexander, of Little Dog Wildlife LLC, who helped map prairie dog colonies on the reservation this summer. One earring she wore looked like a little prairie dog, the other resembled a small ferret.
Last year 29 of the ferrets were released on the nearly 5,000-square-mile Crow Indian Reservation, located south of Billings. Only a couple survived.
“Unfortunately it takes three successful years before we get good reproduction,” said John Hughes, a biologist who trucked the ferrets to the reservation in a minivan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado. That’s where captive ferrets are bred for release to the wild.
Such low survival rates are not unusual for the species, which has been listed as endangered since 1967. The ferrets face a variety of challenges, not the least of which is finding suitable prairie dog habitat — the ferrets’ main food source.
“What’s amazing about the Crow is their allegiance to the wild,” Bly said. “You have a very complete ecosystem here, from the prairie to the mountains.”
“We didn’t know anything about prairie dogs in the beginning,” said Clayvin Herrera, a tribal fish and game officer and Crow Nation black-footed ferret recovery team leader.
But Alexander has uncovered colonies spread across more than 3,000 acres of the arid sagebrush land east of the Pryor Mountains. Herrera called her the “prairie dog mapping guru.”
“The Crow have lots of habitat, prime, prime prairie habitat,” Bly said.
Wednesday’s release site was deep in the heart of Crow Country, down rutted and muddy farm roads, past grazing cattle and fields of bowing sunflowers to a prairie dog town spread across a hillside above a small pond. In a wild aerial salute 100 geese lifted off the pond as the convoy of vehicles containing about 30 people arrived.
Prairie dogs peering from their burrow mounds sounded a chirping alert, unaware that the vehicles would bring a species to live in their burrows and dine on their relatives. A cottontail rabbit seemed unconcerned until one of the curious ferrets slinked close enough to make it nervous. Three antelope ran past at full tilt, rounding out the menagerie.
“It’s prairie dog heaven out here,” Bly said.
“We want to build it up,” Herrera said. “We started with sage grouse and mapped their leks. We keep moving one species at a time until all the wildlife is managed in a healthy and prosperous way.”
One of many
The Crow ferret release site is the 26th in the nation since 1991 and the sixth tribal location. Other places in Montana where the ferrets have been released include the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the U.L. Bend Wilderness.
For the ferrets to be removed from the endangered species list there needs to be 10 populations each consisting of 30 breeding adults. That’s no small task considering that biologists estimate each breeding female defends about 1,000 acres of a prairie dog colony.
The biggest threat to that recovery goal has been sylvatic plague outbreaks that can kill prairie dogs and ferrets. Attempts to reduce the fleas using pesticides has resulted in some fleas building up an immunity. Vaccinating ferrets is time consuming, so the latest hope is being placed in baits containing a plague vaccine that can be distributed in colonies. To avoid often muddy conditions, small drones are being tested as a way to deliver the baits.
“It may not be a silver bullet, but it may be a brass bullet, or a lead bullet,” joked Pete Gober, the USFWS ferret recovery coordinator.
Another new possibility that Gober sees holding hope, which was outlined in an August National Geographic magazine article, is the possibility of using genomic technology to edit the ferret’s DNA to be plague resistant.
“These animals have a high reproductive rate,” Gober said. “Their population could jump in a quantum leap. They can expand quite rapidly.”
He called the recovery goals modest. Yet despite tens of millions of dollars and years of reintroduction work the species still clings to the edge of extinction. Places like the Crow Indian Reservation, with large and intact prairie dog towns, will hopefully help restore the black-footed ferret to a more robust population.
Gober doesn’t foresee the ferrets being delisted before he retires in a few years, but he said recovery is possible within the next decade.
“How long did it take us to get into this situation?” he said, noting that the species once covered the West before it was driven nearly to extinction by poisoning and habitat loss over the past 100 years.
“The goal is to preserve these animals that are so emblematic of the West,” he said. “Over time we’ve moved from benign management of wildlife to a European model of how much can we afford and where do we have it.”
Not Afraid said Crow people used to rely on their natural resources to survive — from game like deer and bison for their meat and hides, to berries and roots.
“Today, we’re not really dependent on natural resources because of the IGA down the street, we can run to the supermarket,” he said.
But maybe a return to focusing on natural resources — wildlife like the black-footed ferret — could help the tribe rediscover itself in a world that has been so unalterably changed.
“Maybe if we introduce the black-footed ferret, and they multiply, it will get rid of all the bad stuff we have here, like the meth and alcohol,” he mused.
“I’m going to stay optimistic,” Herrera said. “We’ll keep plugging away till they are a self-sufficient animal. I’m invested in this.
“The only way this took off is by building partnerships,” he added. “This couldn’t happen without the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”