See it in its original context HERE
I have a confession: I’ve always disliked ferrets. A childhood friend had one and I always felt like playing with it was like trying to hold a wriggling furry slinky. Which, needless to say, turned me off of the species pretty quickly.
Despite my aversion, I watched Return of the Prairie Bandit – a documentary that will be airing on The Nature of Things next week. It follows the efforts to re-introduce the black-footed ferret into Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan.
Until late 2009, the last time one was seen in the wilds of Canada was 70 years ago. That’s because their major source of food, the black-tailed prairie dog, was seen as a pest and the target of a government extermination program during the settling of the West. The organized kill was a wild success bringing the population down to two percent of what it once was. So too with the black-footed ferrets as their numbers were reduced so drastically that in the 1980s there were literally only 18 left.
Today, across North America, the prairie dog population numbers anywhere between ten to twenty million with about one percent in Canada. Now, with a sufficient amount of prey, the efforts to re-populate wild ferret communities are underway. There are 19 reintroduction sites across North America including the only Canadian site in Grasslands. Thirty-four ferrets raised in captivity were released in Saskatchewan last year with fifteen more slated to join them.
Is Reintroduction the Answer?
Reintroduction of a captive species is a difficult and often controversial process. Return of the Prairie Bandit shows how early in the reintroduction a drought reduced prairie dog numbers and compromised the fate of the black-footed ferret. More than 90 percent of the ferrets were killed within nine months of their re-introduction in Wyoming in 1991.
The spread of disease is a major concern in reintroduced species as well. The black-footed ferrets were all vaccinated against the plague before their release (the same bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 1300s). After the local prairie dog population started showing signs of plague there were worries about the ferret’s source of food dying off. Parks staff resorted to spraying for fleas that carry the disease to prevent an epidemic. The reintroduction team captured the ferret’s babies, called kits, and vaccinated them the next year.
And reintroducing the black-footed ferret comes at a another cost as well. Monitoring and management from 2009-2014 will cost $565,000 in public money. Luckily, these guys are cute enough to make even me, the notorious ferret hater, willing to pony up.