It was about 8:30 at night when Randy Matchett, senior biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service called to see if I wanted to join him in releasing some black-footed ferrets on the nearby UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge (which actually exists within the larger Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge). It’s not every day that you get an opportunity to participate in the release of one of the most endangered species in North America. I enthusiastically agreed to come along and lend a hand.
Around 5:00 am the next morning, twenty ferrets started their long journey from Colorado where they had been raised in captivity. On the most recent all–night population surveys in the refuge, Randy and many dedicated employees and volunteers had identified only three ferrets left in this area after an enormous effort over the last twenty years involving the reintroduction of 235 captive-reared ferrets and documentation of more than 250 wild-born kits. Sylvatic plague, lethal to ferrets and their main food source, prairie dogs, is a main impediment to ferret population establishment. The decision was made recently to supplement the dwindling population.
A crew of eight biologists and volunteers split up into two groups and walked across the prairie until we found the first burrow marker indicating a release spot. We opened the door of the cage over the hole of its new burrow, waiting expectantly, and gently coaxing out the furry little bandit. By then, it was around 6:00 pm and already dark on a very cold November night. My two daughters, Aeowyn and Alethea, stood shivering in the night, alternating between excitement and complaints – as two and four year-olds are known to do.
The girls watched as each creature ventured bravely out of its cage and quickly vanished into its new home, and my mind went to a day, years in the future, when they would be old enough to better understand what was happening. Perhaps they will more fully appreciate the extraordinary efforts of the folks at the ferret breeding facility in Colorado, the hard work of the dedicated team at the USFWS, and all the others who support and protect this ecosystem, making it possible for a viable population of ferrets to thrive here.
Though fraught with peril, if the great work of the Fish and Wildlife Service and its many volunteers continues, the future looks bright for the only masked bandits left in the Wild West.