Critically endangered Black-footed ferrets released in Pueblo West

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PUEBLO, Colo. — Each year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) releases a number of critically endangered Black-footed ferrets to southern Colorado in an effort to bring the animal off the critically endangered list and balance out the ecosystem.

Conservationists transport the ferrets to Prairie dog holes to be released. Credit: Michael Duran

According to the CPW, the last Black-footed ferret to be spotted in the wild was back in 1943, and the species was believed to be extinct. They said it wasn’t until the 1980s when a small group of them was discovered in Wyoming and that was around the time when they were bred in captivity to eventually be reintroduced back into the wild when they were ready.

A Black-footed ferret prepares to be released. Credit: Michael Duran

Friday afternoon, five Black-footed ferrets were released onto Walker Ranch in Pueblo West, a privately owned property by Gary and Georgia Walker. This 40-thousand acre land has been home to the ferrets since 2013–several years after the Walkers called CPW to suggest releasing the ferrets on their land.

“This property is ideal for Black-footed ferrets because of the Prairie dog population here,” said Ed Scmal, conservation biologist for CPW. “We have 16 hundred acres of active Prairie dogs on this side of the highway.”

Curious ferret exploring its new surroundings. Credit: Michael Duran

Prairie dogs are renowned for ridding a landscape of vegetation so, which makes it difficult for other animals and fragile native plants to thrive, so officials said the introduction of the ferrets could create a balance, since Prairie dogs make up 90 percent of the ferrets’ diet.

“This is a great example of the relationship between the prairie dogs, the prairie ecosystem and the Black-footed ferret to conserve as an ambassador to help get this habitat protected and protect their prey which in return protects other species,” said Jeff Baughman, conservation keeper at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The land is carefully inspected and managed to ensure protection from disease and plague to make it safe for the ferrets. Credit: Michael Duran

However, it’s not as easy as simply letting the ferrets go onto the land. In fact, according to the CPW, these animals are vulnerable to different factors in the wild — one of those being plague and disease. The CPW said they focus most of their efforts on plague management in a prospective ferret home.

“We’ve also been working actually just this last 2 weeks in applying plague vaccine baits onto these active prairie dog towns and give them that immunity to plague to help them weather those plague outbreaks,” Schmal said.

Despite the effort and the hard work, the CPW said that it all pays off in the end. Credit: Michael Duran

It’s a difficult and lengthy process, according to officials, but they said that they benefits outweigh the challenges.

“Being able to see these animals leave their crates and dive into prairie dog hole really fills me with joy,” Schmal said.

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