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Ranch now home to black-footed ferret

The release of the highly endangered black-footed ferret turned into an historic event Oct. 30 for Pueblo West.

Representatives from several local, state and federal conservation and government agencies, as well as concerned citizens, gathered at the Walker Ranch to release the highly endangered black-footed ferret.

For ranch owners Gary and Georgia Walker of Pueblo West, the day marked the successful end of a 20-year quest.

The Walkers beamed as they opened their critter carriers and released two feisty furry ferrets into one of the thousands of prairie dog burrows on their property.

Gary Walker let out a hearty laugh and cajoled the new residence “to eat well and prosper.”

So why all the fuss over a ferret?

Well, it turns out the only ferret native to North America also is the only serious natural predator of the prairie dog. While some snakes, coyotes and badgers are known to occasionally snack on prairie dogs, the deceivingly vicious black-footed ferret makes them a regular entrée.

In fact, a single ferret may eat more than 100 prairie dogs in a year.

As most Pueblo West residents know, people’s feelings about prairie dogs tend to depend on their point of view.

If they can view them from a distance they tend to think of them as cute, some say.

But if they view them up close, and on their own property, they tend to think otherwise.

“Sharing” property with the ‘p-dogs is not a pleasant experience, residents say.

Cattlemen like Gary Walker fall in the latter category.

“The grass grows back where my cattle graze,” Walker said.

“But where prairie dogs live the grass is completely destroyed, and it takes a long time to restore that land.

“Whenever you see tumbleweed you can thank a prairie dog.”

However, those who take time to study the prairie dog species appreciate that they represent an important wildlife resource. Even those like Walker who curse the varmints, recognize that responsible conservation of the prairie dog has important consequences for many other species of animals in the grassland ecosystem.

THE SWIFT FOX, burrowing owl, raptor, mountain plover, several snakes, many rodents, and of course the black-footed ferret, all depend on the prairie dogs for food, shelter and/or nesting sites.

It also is important to note that prairie dogs are naturally nomadic, meaning that they prefer to keep moving.

But with so much of the prairie lands having been plowed for crops, these large colonies have remained relatively static for years.

Their destruction is dramatic.

Walker estimates that more than 10,000 acres of his ranch land has been rendered “non-productive” for grazing.

In addition to the dramatic loss of habitat, the introduction of plague (from fleas), and poisoning has led to the demise of both the prairie dogs and the black-footed ferrets.

The Walkers are opposed to poisoning, and they believe that nature always has provided the best solution to this complex problem.

Many of Walker’s fellow cattlemen and many environmental and regulatory experts agree.

On the surface the solution of bringing back the black-footed ferret seemed fairly simple.

Turns out it was one of the toughest challenges the Walkers and their “BFF allies” have ever faced, officials said.

THE BIGGEST ROADBLOCK was the legislation that actually penalized private land owners who attempting to harbor any endangered species.

Walker said that historically, when an endangered species was found on private property, the federal government stepped in and imposed strict mandates on the use of the land.

In some cases, the agencies also held the land owners and their neighbors liable for any harm that came to the rare animals.

It was a classic “catch 22” for ranchers, tribal leaders and other private land owners.

Those who are deeply committed to conservation actually dreaded the possibility of finding any rare or endangered species on their property. Some (not including the Walkers), even captured or destroyed these beautiful creatures to avoid the serious personal and economic consequences from protecting them.

Fortunately for the Walkers there were many experts in Colorado and 11 other states that understood their dilemma and shared their resolve to find a solution.

The battle for the black-footed ferrets had to be waged on several fronts including recovery of the species; plague control; regulatory revisions; landowner incentives; and boundary control.

The black-footed ferret recovery effort has been under way since 1981, when a small population was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming.

Remarkably, only 18 ferrets were taken into captivity.

But these precious few provided the foundation for a successful captive-breeding program that has brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

IN 2011, IT was reported that 1,000 ferrets were surviving in the wild, and 300 more in captivity.

The recovery program is supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and the zoological institutions in Colorado Springs (Cheyenne Mountain Zoo), Phoenix, Louisville and Toronto.

Some of the folks on the front lines of the recovery effort at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo were on hand to witness and celebrate the release of fifty of their black-footed ferrets on the Walker Ranch.

Dr. Della Garelle, director of Field Conservation and a veterinarian at Cheyenne Mountain, spoke about the hard work and collaboration that led to the momentous release day.

“The recovery program at the CMZ has been in effect for twenty three years,” Garelle said.

“The six captive-breeding programs have been reintroducing the ferret on public land since 1991, but reintroduction on private land — especially in Colorado — has been extremely difficult.”

THE 50 NEW furry residents were released over a 4,000-acre radius, in order to ensure that each breeding pair has adequate room and board.

Each animal came equipped with a high-tech microchip that will enable scientists monitor the overall progress of the colony, and the activities of each individual ferret.

Since the ferrets have a gestational period of only 41 to 43 days, and an average litter size of three to four kits, scientists are hopeful that the Walker Ranch colony will grow quickly.

All of the new arrivals also will have microchips implanted before they leave home and establish new territories at the ripe old age of four months.

Since the Walker Ranch is the only active relocation site in Colorado, all eyes and ears of the conservation community are upon it.

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