He was always there, of course, but the centuries went by and nobody ever saw him but now they've found him and it's a big deal.

The black-footed ferret, sleek fuzzy predator of prairie-dog villages, once flourished in the American West, among the 5 billion prairie dogs (ground squirrels), but now the dogs have declined to 1 percent of their former population, and the ferrets who prey on them have declined accordingly.

Tim W. Clark, an adjunct professor of biology at Idaho State University, has spent 10 years looking for the ferret. Everybody knew the ferret used to be there (in 12 states and two Canadian provinces) and everybody knew they were for all practical purposes extinct now. Once in a great while a mongrel farm dog would catch one, so they were not truly extinct. They live virtually all their life underground, so even in the old days when ferrets were plentiful, hardly anybody ever saw one.

Clark and his team--no government money, by the way--walked 2,500 miles and investigated 111,000 holes. They found the ferrets in Colorado on land privately managed since the 1870s, where sound wildlife policy (that is, not gassing everything with paws) has always been practiced. Clark estimates there are 60 ferrets surviving.

Maybe if the team patrols a few more thousand additional miles and investigates a few more 100,000 holes, they will find more ferrets.

But with 99 percent of the prairie dog population dead, it can hardly be speculated there are many ferrets still to be discovered.

Among the few, some have radio collars now. We may learn where young ferrets go when they leave home, and how long they live. You catch a ferret by sticking a tubular metal mesh trap over a hole where you know he is (that is the great art, to find him in the first place) and you watch, and when the ferret comes out, you give him a hypodermic anesthesia, set him in an open box then collar him, wait for him to recover, and walk away. He goes on with his life, looking rather natty in the collar which he accepts as well as the average collared creature.

His fur is softer even than the mink's. Too soft, fortunately, to stand the wear of the standard hide-bearing American dame.

The sweet black-foot has admirable teeth and knows what to do with them. He is of no known use, as humans are of no known use, to the universe.

Clark said you either believe or you do not that life is worth something, human or not, "useful" or not. At lunch somebody asked if it would be a great loss for the earth to be rid of the anopheles mosquito. Verdict: probably. You do not hear people suggest automobiles be abolished, despite their known proclivity for devouring humans, and while people occasionally pout at the chemical industry, everybody heartily supports it in all ways that count. But a bug, a mammal (and often enough a human) meets the stern inquisitor who wants to know what the hell you or it is good for and please cite 42 good reasons against extermination.

The ferret, along with everybody else, got born through no effort or fault of his own, and for all these millenia has arranged to stay alive. Until the current issue of the National Geographic came out with a small article on the beast, most of us never even knew such an animal ever existed.

Clark complained mildly that the main article of the magazine is on the universe, which is ferretless except for the earth. (A sounder editor, I gathered, would have led off with the ferret and stuck the universe in a supplement along with the annual report, since nobody but loons now thinks there is life anywhere but here; though of course there may have been life out there once, more advanced than ours, which got to where we are sooner, which is why there is no life there now.)

How is the ferret to be fostered and protected, now that his existence has been confirmed by higher authorities than an occasional ranch dog?

Well, young ferrets could be introduced into new localities, but localities would soon run out. Clark, answering a few questions at the magazine office was not sanguine that the ferret will ever flourish as it once did. The thing you automatically think of, that the entire West could be turned over to prairie dogs and ferrets, is too sensible to be practical, but one does wonder why they could not have Utah, at least, as their own wilderness preserve.

Clark estimates his 10 years' work on the ferrets cost $25,000. The intensified search, involving volunteers who got paid nothing, he estimates at $50,000. That comes, altogether, to $75,000.

If the MX missile nonsense, which will cost $30 billion, were scrapped, it would pay for the black-footed ferret program with something left over.

Again, it makes too much sense for anybody to take it seriously.

The ferret lives largely underground.

Way, way, way underground, if wise.

The rationale for the MX program is unarguable, of course. It won't help with the defense of the nation, that is not the point, but it will make a president happy and what could be more important than that. Besides, the state badly needs a drain hole for billions which otherwise accumulate at the Treasury. It will show the world, moreover, that you never know what Washington (that is, the carhops elected to serve here) will do.

It is silly to worry that life may be destroyed by bombs or something. Life will prevail. Cockroaches were here when coal was being laid down, and still flourish in considerable grandeur. So life will surely survive. Tough and scratchy and barely making it, probably, but then that's life for most creatures outside Congress.

Besides, even if there are a few errors along the way, with the MX and the president and humans out of the way the ferrets may have a chance.

It might be for the best. God's will, as somebody would surely say if here to say it. With cockroaches and ferrets and a few select specimens of bat, maybe, there is no reason life could not once again be rich and marvelous.

Ferrets, at least, are far handsomer than old men, and in brains there is not much (prejudice aside) to choose.