Bozeman - Federal officials began dispersing poison on public land today aimed at killing prairie dogs, the primary food source for black-footed ferrets, the most endangered mammal in North America. The poisoning is taking place in and around the only successful ferret reintroduction site in the world. The effort is being undertaken on behalf of ranchers whose cattle compete with prairie dogs for grass in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland east of Rapid City.
"This poisoning will have an impact on the number of ferrets that can survive in the Conata Basin," said Steve Forrest, a program officer in WWF's Northern Great Plains ecoregion office in Bozeman, Montana. "Ferrets eat prairie dogs and live in their burrows, and with 5,000 fewer acres of prairie dogs available, fewer ferrets will be able to make living out there."
The poisoning comes days after a settlement was reached between a number of federal agencies and a coalition of conservation groups that had sued the government. The deal cut about 3,000 acres from the original poisoning plan and a proposal that would have allowed prairie dogs to be shot. The settlement also lays the foundation for a long-term resolution. No more poisonings will take place until the government conducts an environmental impact study which, conservationists hope, will lead to permanent protections for prairie dogs and ferrets in this area.
"The settlement was making the best out of a bad situation," continued Forrest who was an expert witness in the court case. "The government study will be open to public input and we'll be encouraging people to comment."
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until a population was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. The population was captured and bred in captivity. Today ferrets can be found at reintroduction sites in South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. The site in South Dakota is home to the only self-sustaining population of ferrets. Success has been limited by diseases affecting both ferrets and prairie dogs, limited sites and local opposition. Ferrets once were found throughout the Great Plains, from Texas to southern Saskatchewan.