One year after the historic return of the black-footed ferret to Meeteetse, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, released 13 more of the endangered species on the Pitchfork Ranch.
Wyoming non-game biologist Jesse Boulerice led a group of about 60 state and federal employees, landowners and their family and friends into prime prairie dog habitat for the release. The site was near the Hogg ranch where the first ferret was rediscovered 36 years ago by Shep, a blue heeler owned by Lucille and John Hogg.
Madison and Riley Hogg, great-grandchildren of Lucille and John, received the honors of releasing the first feisty ferret this year.
“I knew they had to be a part of this. It’s their legacy,” said their grandmother, Kristine Hogg, who had the honor of releasing the first ferret last year.
The two children, from Cody, missed last year’s celebration on the 35th anniversary of the species’ rediscovery.
“They tell the story at school and not all of the kids believe them,” Hogg said.
But now they have quite the story to tell. As Madison opened the thick wire door to the animal carrier, the growls of the ferocious ferret sent chills through the crowd. Then, as everyone waited for the creature to escape to freedom, it temporarily refused to exit. Madison prodded the ferret, an adolescent female born in captivity at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Ft. Collins, Colorado. But instead of running down the prairie dog burrow, it attacked the prodding stick.
Eventually, Boulerice stepped in and the ferret took to its new home. A hind quarter of a fresh prairie dog was tossed in the hole behind it as a parting gift.
As the sun began to set, Dennie Hammer was given an opportunity to release one of the lucky 13 ferrets. But it wasn’t the first ferret he has released. More than three decades ago, while working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hammer took a big risk.
After finding and capturing the first live black-footed ferret — the only known individual in the world — Hammer and Martin took it to be checked by a local vet, fitted it with a radio transmitter and then released it the following morning.
“The idea was, find one, track it and you’ll find others,” Hammer said.
Over the course of two weeks they found four more and then, over the course of several months they counted 122. They were eventually able to catch 18 ferrets.
But imagine the plan failing. If they had released the ferret and their plan didn’t work, they would have been an unpopular pair at work.
“We didn’t sleep a great deal that night,” Hammer said. “We thought it could be the start of a good career or it could be the end of a good career.”
After capturing the famous first 18, most if not all of the remaining 122 died from an outbreak of disease. But those 18 ferrets have parented approximately 9,000 offspring.
The 13 ferrets were released on a remote part of the Pitchfork Ranch, owned by Lenox Baker. Baker, a retired heart surgeon from Virginia, purchased a portion of the ranch in 1999 and has been a permanent resident on the property since 2009. He runs 1,250 cattle on the ranch.
“Jesse [Boulerice] came to me five years ago and ask if he could test our prairie dogs for plague,” Baker said.
The Game and Fish ended up treating 1,000 acres of the ranch for disease. The property was sprayed to kill the fleas and food pellets were used to immunize the prairie dog population. The ferrets were also vaccinated prior to their release.
Before the first release of the day, Baker announced the habitat would remain intact even after he was gone. The Nature Conservancy now has an easement for the property.
“We need to keep these places just the way they are, because they are disappearing fast,” Baker said.
But even with all the precautions that have been taken, Boulerice discussed the dangers facing the ferrets at a speech during the Draper After Dark lecture series at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody earlier in the summer.
Despite being ferocious, the ferret has its predators, including raptors. And surprisingly, a prairie dog will occasionally get the best of a ferret, Boulerice said. During a chase, a crafty prairie dog can double back on a ferret and back-fill the hole. Unable to dig its way out, the ferret is buried alive.
Boulerice and a team of biologists from the Game and Fish will spend the next month counting ferrets in the area. The job is laborious, as scientists stay up all night using spotlights to find ferrets — as the light reflects their glowing, emerald green eyes. After the first 35 were released last year, only 19 were counted in the following survey, Boulerice said.
This summer, Boulerice will have the help of canines trained to locate ferrets — on loan from Working Dogs for Conservation in Bozeman — in hopes of getting accurate counts of those released near Meeteetse.