Voluntary conservation curbs the plague, boosts black-footed ferret numbers in the Southwest

By Elijah Olomoniyi

Yesterday, federal and state wildlife groups met north of Fort Collins, Colorado, at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center to celebrate the ways voluntary conservation and a new sylvatic plague vaccine are helping to bring the black-footed ferret back from the brink of extinction.

Black-footed ferret populations are mostly limited by reduced prairie dog numbers. Photo courtesy of the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center.

Declining prairie dog populations and a high prevalence of sylvatic plague nearly wiped out the ferret species completely by 1979. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ran a captive breeding program and reintroduced black-footed ferrets in eight western states and Mexico between 1991 and 2008 to bring the species back. Today, the ferret’s wild population exceeds 1,000 individuals across South Dakota, Arizona, and Wyoming.

Their numbers continue to increase thanks to a sylvatic plague vaccine, which has helped protect the mammal from contracting the disease through the ingestion of prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret’s meal of choice. Through a collaborative and voluntary initiative, the vaccine, embedded in peanut-butter-flavored bait, is fed to prairie dogs living on public and private lands.

A Gunnison prairie dog eats bait laden with the sylvatic plague vaccine, the second product of its kind to be used at the landscape level to protect wildlife. It will soon be used on thousands of acres in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and potentially other western states. Photo courtesy of USGS.

“This process – working with the private landowners and compensating them for working with us to recover species and to sustain species – in our mind is the model of conservation, as it has to happen with private lands,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Private Lands Manager Ken Morgan told farm broadcaster Brian Allmer. “Non-regulatory, non-invasive, all voluntary.”

Bob Broscheid, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, added “One of the things that my staff are always reminding me, and certainly my support behind this, is that it is going to be done with incentive-based, voluntary programs, and without the private landowners we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are, we cannot forget that.”

With continued use of the vaccine, some ranchers have expressed concern that prairie dogs might become immune to the sylvatic plague and their populations could skyrocket. Tonie Rocke, a research epizootiologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the federal government is taking precautions to ensure that doesn’t happen. “We would be only treating selective prairie dog populations, mostly for conservation purposes where there are ferrets,” Rocke said. “We won’t be treating every prairie dog colony that exists.”

Click here to access Brian Allmer’s complete coverage of the event.

Elijah Olomoniyi is NACD’s 2017 summer intern. A Chicago native, Elijah is a current student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying public policy and law. He can be reached by email at intern@nacdnet.org.

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