After a Montana judge reinstated federal protections for grizzly bears on Monday, the iconic species is dominating headlines once again — and rightfully so.
But before we weigh in on the latest decision in the ongoing bear battle, we want to instead recognize a much smaller species: the black-footed ferret.
It’s a big week for the little animal. On Friday, several more black-footed ferrets will be released near Meeteetse.
The event marks another chapter in one of the greatest conservation success stories in our country’s history.
As North America’s only native ferret species, black-footed ferrets were believed to be extinct. Then along came a dog named Shep, who proudly brought home a dead ferret to his Meeteetse family’s doorstep in 1981. Dog owners usually aren’t thrilled with the dead animals their canine companions bring home, but in Shep’s case, he truly had a prize.
Lucille and John Hogg — Shep’s owners — took the animal to a taxidermist, who recognized it as a black-footed ferret.
A biologist later told the Los Angeles Times, “we figure it’s a toss-up right now as to which is the rarest North American mammal — these ferrets or the Florida panther.”
Biologists discovered a colony of roughly 120 ferrets living on the Pitchfork Ranch.
But the rare ferrets weren’t out of the woods yet. Due to disease, their numbers eventually dwindled to just 18. At that point, the remaining wild ferrets were taken into a captive breeding program.
While there were bumps along the way, black-footed ferrets made it back to Meeteetse in 2016, as 35 of the critters were released on the Pitchfork and Lazy BV (Hogg) ranches.
Friday’s release of ferrets is the latest step in the reintroduction effort.
“These releases are necessary due to the relatively short lifespan of the ferrets, due to natural causes and predation,” Meeteetse Museums said in a news release.
Meeteetse Museums will host its annual celebration of the endangered animal on Friday from 2-4 p.m., and it’s good to see the ferrets get their moment in the limelight.
Ferrets aren’t as controversial as some of their fellow carnivores. They don’t kill livestock, nor do they attack hikers and hunters. While they can be quite vicious to prairie dogs, ferrets don’t have a bad reputation in Wyoming. They’re more like an adorable mascot for the Endangered Species Act.
Black-footed ferrets are a classic example of how the Endangered Species Act can work. Without intervention and conservation efforts, the rare species likely would be extinct, as was feared decades ago.
As its name implies, the Endangered Species Act was created to protect animals that are truly endangered and threatened, like the black-footed ferret. We appreciate when the act protects species in need, but find it frustrating when recovered animals continue to be listed, as is the case with grizzlies.
“Biologists correctly determined grizzly bears no longer needed ESA protections,” Gov. Matt Mead said in a Monday statement. “The decision to return grizzly bears to the list of threatened and endangered species is further evidence that the ESA is not working as its drafters intended …”
When biologists declare a species has recovered, but it continues to receive federal protections, it’s like continuing to cry wolf. As a result, many Wyomingites have lost faith in the Endangered Species Act and the listing process — or in the grizzly’s case, the process of delisting, relisting, delisting and relisting over the past decade.
Although the recent decisions and endless court cases can make us disillusioned, the story of the black-footed ferret is a reminder of why the Endangered Species Act exists in the first place. A new generation of ferrets will venture out into the wild, not far from where their species was rediscovered and given another chance. It’s a conservation story that has come full circle — and that’s worth celebrating.