Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
April / May 1999


Black-Footed Ferret Outing Great Success

by Bill Myers, Chair, Metro Air Committee

On Thursday, November 19, 1998,
the Rocky Mountain Chapter became the first public group of individuals permitted to visit the National Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Center in Sybille, Wyoming.

Nine adults and two girls made the three-hour trip from Denver for this privately guided tour of the recovery center, as well as the Sybille Wildlife Research facility next door.

The black-footed ferret is a small member of the weasel family. As the USDA’s pest-control program eradicated large colonies of prairie dogs throughout this century—the primary diet of the black-footed ferrets—the ferret essentially disappeared.

When the original listing of Endangered Species was written in 1967, no colonies of black-footed ferrets were known to exist. In 1986, a group of 200 black-footed ferrets was found but struck by sylvatic plague. A recovery program took 18 surviving ferrets, with only eight capable of captive breeding, to Sybille. From that small start a dozen years ago, the recovery program has grown the population to more than 600 ferrets.

The National Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Center is located in the isolated Sybille River valley, 25 miles northeast of Laramie, Wyoming. Next door is Wyoming’s Sybille Wildlife Research station, long known for its studies on interspecies brucellosis (ungulate fever) contamination and spongiform encephalopathy (chronic wasting disease).

The center is usually closed to the public, but three months of wrangling, some persistent nagging and a call from our Laramie-based counsel, Reed Zars, finally convinced the center to allow our visit.

Our group was given a brief lecture on black-footed ferrets and their recovery history. Since it was mid-day (mid-night for our nocturnal friends!) most of the indoor kits did not cooperate in our viewing.

After looking at several without success, we came to one named "Mork." Mork wasn’t active, but our outside ruckus in seeing a familiar name awoke the remainder of the caged colonists. The next one shyly poked her head up to see what was happening. The next several dozen caged ferrets came up to join her.

From there we went to the outside pens. Bob told us that ferrets are actually smaller than many of the prairie dogs that they kill, but they attack at night and attach themselves to the prairie dog’s neck, leveraging their bodies against the tunnel to snap it.

Next door to the center is one of the nation’s premier wildlife research centers. Sybille was established decades ago to conduct basic wildlife research. When the outbreaks of chronic wasting diseases broke out among northern Colorado/southeast Wyoming elk, the station examined whether this disease spread between species. The station also conducts research on brucellosis.

Dave Zeiler, the resident biologist/veterinarian, provided us with the stupid human story of the decade while showing us "Rambo," a caged mountain lion on the premises.

It seems that individuals in Nebraska can own mountain lions. A Nebraska couple sold Rambo as a cub to a Wyoming family. The Nebraska family told the Wyoming couple that "so long as you feed Rambo nothing but ‘cat food,’ he won’t get very big." The Wyoming couple, disturbed by Rambo’s increasing size, contacted Wyoming’s Division of Wildlife for answers. Sadly, the Division of Wildlife had to confiscate Rambo and place him in a cage. He could not return to the wild because of his affinity for children.

One of our helpful Sierrans offered to take Rambo back to Highlands Ranch to control the population there, but we didn’t have enough room in the van to accomplish this feat.

The visit was a wonderful learning experience.


More on the Ferrets

Additional Outings-As part of the growth in outings, I would like to make this tour a regular outing. Because of center requirements, early fall is the best time for the visits. A contribution to reintroduction efforts would probably encourage the center to re-invite us. Call Bill Myers (303-935-6810) or a Peak & Prairie staff member if you are interested.

Ferret Spotting-The Fish & Wildlife Service still has a great need for volunteers to help search for additional ferret colonies. Training is available for night-spotlighting sessions, which take place at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. The contact is biologist Randy Matchett, 406-658-2515.

Contributions and Unique Gifts-Though "official" gifts to the government to support specific endangered species are as likely to buy another bomb as end up supporting wildlife, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s non-profit foundation is designed to help endangered species recovery efforts. Information can be obtained from Helen Tarbert, 410-795-3126. In addition, unique gifts like authentic black-footed ferret or prairie dog plush animals, center T-shirts and the like are available through Paul E. Marinar, National Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Center, 3362 Highway 34, Wheatland, WY 82201 307-322-5933.