(LAMAR, Colo.) — A prairie dog colony was in for a rude surprise as Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) released 30 federally threatened black-footed ferrets into the wild on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

The black-footed ferrets were released on a prairie dog colony at Southern Plains Land Trust in Lamar to give the species a chance at recovery, said Jay Tutchton, CPW Commissioner and Land Manager of the Southern Plains Land Trust.

CPW said the black-footed ferret is one of the rarest mammals in North America. The population released into the wild was raised at a US Fish & Wildlife (USFW) breeding facility and sent to the Southern Plains Land Trust preserve for release, according to CPW. The ferrets were coaxed into prairie dog burrows so they may feed entirely on prairie dogs and hopefully build a colony, stated CPW.

The Southern Plains Land Trust is the eighth ferret release site on Colorado’s eastern plains making it an important place for CPW’s effort to recover black-footed ferret popoulations. Oct. 19, was the first time the ferrets were released on the property. According to CPW’s Species Conservation Coordinator, Tina Jackson, the site has around 1500 to 1700 acres of black-tailed prairie dogs, which are one of three prairie dog species in Colorado.

“The black-footed ferret is an endangered species dependent completely on prairie dog colonies for both a place to live and food to eat,” said Jackson. “It’s really remarkable to reach recovery for black-footed ferrets in Colorado and throughout the continent. We need a number of sites like this. This is just one of the pieces of the puzzle to get us to that recovery.”

Colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs were on high alert soon after CPW released the ferrets into the wild. Sentry prairie dogs were seen calling an alarm while others cautiously investigated with tails raised, said CPW. Nevertheless, the ferrets were quick to spot their prey.

The black-footed ferret was known to be extinct until Sept. 26, 1981, when a small colony was found on a ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming. CPW now works with USFW to reintroduce the black-footed ferrets to prairie dog colonies in Colorado.

Every summer, CPW terrestrial biologists and volunteers walk miles and miles distributing peanut butter pellets laced with plague vaccine for prairie dog colonies, stated CPW. Plague vaccines aim to prevent the loss of prairie dog colonies – the only source of food for black-footed ferrets – to the plague.