Wild-born ferret a milestone for recovery effort | CraigDailyPress.com

Wild-born ferret a milestone for recovery effort

An animal that biologists once believed was extinct is making a comeback in Northwest Colorado, according to the Division of Wildlife.

The division announced this week that biologists had found the first evidence of black-footed ferrets released in Colorado reproducing in the wild.

Division of Wildlife and Bureau of Land Management biologists discovered the wild-born female ferret last fall in Wolf Creek management area, which is south of Manassa, near the Rio Blanco and Moffat County line.

“Every ferret that has been released in Colorado has two chips that allow us to know where they were raised and released,” said biologist Pam Schnurr, who leads the Division of Wildlife portion of the multi-agency ferret recovery effort. “The discovery of a ferret without a chip confirms that the ferret was born in the wild.”

Researchers believed the black-footed ferret, a meat-eating mammal that lives in prairie dog burrows, was extinct before the early 1980s, when researchers found a population of about 130 in southern Wyoming.

Disease nearly wiped out the Wyoming population in the mid-1980s and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a captive-breeding program with the remaining 18 ferrets.

Ferrets from the program were released in several states, including Colorado. To date, 186 ferrets have been released in Colorado, but last fall’s discovery was the first evidence that the ferrets are reproducing.

Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife, said the discovery was a major step in the recovery program.

“We had some indications that there was some breeding occurring,” Hampton said. “But this was really the first time we were able to verify it.”

Biologists and volunteers discovered the ferret during their annual spotlighting effort. Researchers use spotlights because the ferrets are nocturnal and only emerge from their holes at night. When the spotlight team thinks they have found a ferret, they note the location and set up monitoring equipment or live traps to gather more information.

Researchers confirmed the presence of 13 ferrets last fall, the most since the Colorado recovery effort began in 2001.

Volunteers also spotted five additional ferrets, but they were unable to positively confirm the sightings.

David Boyd, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, said finding evidence of the ferrets breeding in the wild was excellent news for the bureau.

“With these reintroduction programs, that is exactly what you want,” he said.

The bureau keeps the ferrets in pre-conditioning pens before releasing them into the wild, Boyd said. The pens have prairie dog burrows and allow the animals to adjust to living in the wild before they are released, he said.

The long-term goal of the program, Boyd said, is to have a population of ferrets that reproduce in the wild and don’t need the pens.

Brandon Johansson can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or bjohansson@craigdailypress.com.

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