Prairie Dog and Ferret Restoration

The Big Picture

APR is partnering with other organizations to help restore vibrant prairie dog colonies and their associated species to its private land.  The black-tailed prairie dog is one of the most ecologically important species in the Great Plains.  Prairie dog colonies support a diverse array of wildlife, including burrowing owls, mountain plovers and black-footed ferrets (North America’s most endangered mammal).  However, widespread eradication programs, land use practices and disease have reduced prairie dog populations to less than three percent of their former abundance.

The black-footed ferret is an animal that relies almost exclusively upon healthy prairie dog populations.  Ferrets live only in prairie dog burrows, and more than 90% of their diet is prairie dogs.  The black-footed ferret was twice thought to be extinct until discovery of the last known natural wild population in 1981 near Meeteetse, Wyoming.  Disease (sylvatic plague and canine distemper) hit this population and, in 1987, 18 surviving animals were captured and placed in captive breeding facilities.  All ferrets alive today are the descendents of only seven Meeteetse ferrets that successfully bred and bore kits to establish a captive breeding program.

Starting in 1991, captive-born ferrets began to be reintroduced into the wild at 13 sites in 10 geographic areas, including the U.L. Bend National Wildlife Refuge (located within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge or CMR) and on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in Phillips County, Montana.  Only three self-sustaining populations currently exist—at Shirley Basin, Wyoming; Conata Basin, South Dakota; and Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota.  The U.L. Bend/CMR site is one of Montana’s best hope for long-term persistence of ferrets in the state, but it is believed to contain too few prairie dogs to support a ferret population over the long term. In 2013, the reintroduction site received an additional 20 captive-bred ferrets to help boost population numbers. The nearby Fort Belknap Indian Reservation also reintroduced 32 ferrets on tribal lands in 2013.

Progress to Date

APR deeded land is home to six prairie dog colonies that support diverse wildlife, including more than ten breeding pairs of burrowing owls.  We are monitoring these colonies and have closed prairie dog shooting on our private lands.  In addition, we are working closely with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), and BLM biologists to ensure healthy prairie dog populations that can add to the habitat that already exists to support black-footed ferrets.

Unfortunately in 2007, sylvatic plague struck five of the six colonies, as well as colonies on nearby CMR and BLM lands.  Some prairie dogs continue to persist on these colonies at low numbers and we are mitigating the impacts of plague by dusting prairie dog burrows with the insecticide Deltamethrin, which controls fleas infected with the plague bacterium. We are pleased to report that populations and rebounding and towns have grown in the last couple of years.

Next Steps

Linking APR’s prairie dog towns to the CMR black-footed ferret reintroduction site is likely to provide expanded habitat for CMR ferrets. To facilitate this linkage, APR is working to expand prairie dog towns on APR deeded land. In preparation for this work, APR, WWF and the CMR have secured a cost-share agreement with the USFWS.

APR will also work with scientists to develop a management plan that will include efforts to control plague through various methods, as well as to work with FWP and others to implement the FWP local management plan addressing prairie dog recovery and conservation.  If this is successful and meets approval of all concerned, APR may consider translocating prairie dogs to suitable habitat in the future.