Colorado bill lets towns release endangered ferrets onto prairie dog land

September 4, 2014

Three black-footed ferrets huddle in a temporary housing unit as animal keepers at the National Zoo’s conservation center in Front Royal, Va., rounded-up 26 ferrets for shipment to Fort Collins Colo., in 2011. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Fifteen black-footed ferrets, an endangered species, were released in Fort Collins, Colo., Wednesday, the first town to do so following a bill signing by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in May. The law is designed to reintroduce the species to the wild.

The ferrets are nocturnal predators of prairie dogs, both of which have seen their habitats shrink dramatically through the years. Black-footed ferrets were feared to be extinct in 1980, until a Wyoming taxidermist identified one brought by a rancher whose dog had killed it the following year.

Since then the species has been bred in captivity, and there are currently about 300 in Fort Collins, zoos in Phoenix, Louisville and Toronto, and at the National Zoo’s conservation center in Front Royal, Va. Various attempts have been made to reintroduce the ferrets into the wild, many of which have been unsuccessful.


A black-footed ferret runs past another ferret hiding in temporary housing unit as animal keepers at the National Zooís conservation center in Front Royal, Va., in 2011.(Cliff Owen/AP)

“It’s a jungle in its own way out there dealing with disease, dealing with drought, your prey is just as big as you are,” Pete Gober, recovery coordinator at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center told The Post.

Gober said the introduction of the ferrets won’t immediately or dramatically alter the prairie dog’s habitat, but, “ecologically, it means you’re going to have a top predator into the ecosystem,” he said.

The bill, HB 14-1267, allows municipalities, counties, and other local governments to release ferrets on their land, requires an agreement between land owners and neighbors to ensure there’s no punishment if the endangered species is killed by an otherwise legal activity, and will allow two other local governments in the state to release ferrets following Fort Collins, Daylan Figgs, senior environmental planner for the Fort Collins Natural Areas Department said.


A black-footed ferret hides from animal keepers at the National Zoo’s conservation center in Front Royal, Va., in 2011.(Cliff Owen/AP)

For reintroduction to be successful, areas must meet a prairie dog population threshold that is large enough and concentrated enough to sustain the ferrets.

“Our goal is to get to where we have a self-sustaining population of ferrets,” Figgs said.

Hunter Schwarz covers the intersection of politics and pop culture for the Washington Post
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