The Pueblo Chieftan

Homecoming long overdue

A flash of reddish brown fur flashes to the top of the hole before disappearing again into darkness, only to reappear again a few seconds later to chatter loudly at the crowd that gathered around to witness the event.

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It was a long overdue homecoming, but one that will hopefully go down in the history books as a turning point for Colorado landowners and a boon for the world’s most endangered species.

Once thought to be extinct only 20 years ago, the black footed ferret is making a comeback right here in Pueblo West.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior, Walker Ranches is now home to 50 or so of these extremely rare and beneficial predators.

Gary and Georgia Walker, owners of the large expanse of rolling hills and prairie north of U.S. Highway 50, are true stewards of the land.

As a conservationist, Gary has battled to find a balance between human uses for his land and maintaining the landscape in its original form to benefit the wildlife that lives there.

A cattle rancher, Gary’s nemesis, and also a major pain in the neck for many community members, is the grass destroying prairie dog.

Until now the Walkers have had few options in controlling these parasites of the prairie. Shooting and trapping were minimally effective in keeping the dogs under control and, refusing to use poisons that might affect other wildlife, the Walkers watched their prairie dog problem blossom from 3,000 acres 10 years ago to more than 10,000 acres today.

As Walker explains, grazing cattle will clip grass down to within a few inches of the soil but prairie dogs eat the grass down to the surface, killing it.

This wide spread destruction of the native grass increases weed production and forces prairie dog colonies to move and expand, compounding the problems each year.

Today a new and exciting solution is at hand and it comes in the form of the black footed ferret.

A specialized predator and member of the weasel family, black footed ferrets feed exclusively on prairie dogs.

The success of this transplant actually began in 1981 when a small group of ferrets was discovered living in a prairie dog colony in Wyoming. Previously thought to be extinct, the group of ferrets was monitored in place in hopes that their numbers would multiply.

By 1985, though, plague had reduced the group’s numbers from around 100 to the final 18 of the species and those animals were trapped and taken into captivity in order to help preserve the species.

Today, through the assistance of groups such as the Black Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colo., and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, ferret numbers are slowly increasing.

A new federal agreement, too, titled the Safe Harbor Agreement, now allows for transplants of endangered species on private land without the threats of seizure or further regulation by the U.S. government.

The Walker Ranch is the first in the country to receive a transplant under this agreement and Walker hopes that this precedent becomes a model for other landowners to follow.

As Walker put it, until the Safe Harbor Agreement was passed, it would have been counterproductive for a landowner to admit to anyone that an endangered species lived on his property.

Doing so would have resulted in tremendous regulation by the government, to the point that land could be seized or taken completely out of production. With the new Safe Harbor Agreement in place, though, landowners are in a better position to help manage the recovery of a species that is still teetering on the brink of annihilation.

It’s not likely that the reintroduction of 50 ferrets into the wild will have an immediate impact on the prairie dog population on Walker’s ranch, but given time, there is hope that the ferrets will multiply and prosper enough to at least slow the expansion of their land destroying prey.

And some day, with a lot of good luck and through the work of the many organizations and private land owners who foster a deep concern for the land, the black footed ferret will continue a success story that began right here, in Pueblo West.

Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman who also enjoys writing about his adventures. He can be reached by e-mail at bnlrac@msn.com

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