By RYAN SHERIDAN
Daily Press writer
A plan that will allow for populations of blackfooted ferrets to be released onto public lands in Moffat County, Rio Blanco County and Utah is nearing finalization.
Blackfooted ferrets, an endangered species, would be released into the Wolf Creek Management Area in Moffat and Rio Blanco County.
The Wolf Creek Work Group, which has representatives from Moffat and Rio Blanco County, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) energy producers, the Division of Wildlife and area citizens have worked since 1997 to create this plan, said Ed Hollowed, wildlife biologist for the BLM's White River field office. In addition to the regular public comment process, the work group also contacted every livestock permitee, most oil and gas lease holders and virtually all private landowners affected by the plan, Hollowed said.
"With both processes, we got a good cross section," he said. "The plan was made possible because of the creation of the Non-essential Experimental Population designation for this area which was created in '97 and finalized in '98."
The Non-essential Experimental Population (NEP) designation was created in 1984 to allow flexibility in managing reintroduction of species. The NEP for blackfooted ferrets in northeast Utah, northwest Colorado and southeast Wyoming covers parts of Duchesne and Uintah County in Utah, parts of Moffat and Rio Blanco County in Colorado, and a piece of Sweetwater County in Wyoming.
Blackfooted ferrets were reintroduced in the Coyote Basin Management Area in 1999, and have successfully moved into the ecosystem. A similar process was started for the Little Snake Management Area in Moffat County, but the discovery of bubonic plague in the prairie dog population, which blackfooted ferrets prey upon, derailed the initiative. Instead of releasing blackfooted ferrets, breeding pens were set up in the Cold Springs Wilderness Study Area. Some of the animals being released in this initiative will be coming from those pens.
The hope is the two separate populations will migrate toward each other through the prairie dog areas that connect Coyote Basin and Wolf Creek, Hollowed said.
"The more widespread the population, the less vulnerable the species is less susceptible to disease wiping them out," he said.
The tentative date for the release of the blackfooted ferret populations is Nov. 15, but one final public process being conducted by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM concerning this project must be complete. Until that is complete, the date won't be finalized, Hollowed said, but "if things go smoothly, the release will be on the 15th."
One of the most important aspects of the project is the Non-essential Experimental area designation, according to Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources Department Director and Wolf Creek Work Group member.
"We wanted to make sure the reintroduction plan was not used as the basis of a special land designation proposal," he said. "The most important thing was that the reintroduction would not impact any present or future land use in the areas the ferrets were released into. Protecting land uses and private property rights were our highest priority. This process proves that endangered species and people's use of public lands can coexist."
The Wolf Creek plan borrowed from both the Little Snake and Coyote Basin plans, but strengthened aspects concerned with other uses of the land effected by the release, Comstock said.
"I've enjoyed working in this process, and I support the work the group has done they've done a good job," he said.