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Relocation of Prairie Dogs Saves 500 and Provides Hope for Ferret Recovery

When great minds collaborate, conservation happens. In this case, World Wildlife Fund partnered with federal agencies and other conservation groups to relocate black-tailed prairie dogs living on the interface of federal and private land residence within Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland to designated land for future black-footed ferret restoration. The relocation effort is in response to the recently revised Thunder Basin National Grassland management plan that uses lethal and non-lethal tools alike to manage prairie dogs and their habitat.

“This is a win-win situation,” said Kristy Bly, Program Biologist for WWF. “Prairie dogs will be moved into the heart of the grassland’s ferret recovery area and the adjacent private landowner’s concerns will be addressed.”

Traditionally, poison was the main tool used on the grassland to control prairie dogs bordering private lands. Because the black-tailed prairie dog is a keystone species and their colonies provide habitat for a suite of species including the endangered black-footed ferret, non-lethal techniques such as translocations are often preferred over lethal control. Prairie dog translocation has been successfully used by managers and biologists to minimize conflicts with private landowners while simultaneously restoring or creating habitat where desired.

Today, in an unprecedented move for the U.S. Forest Service, six new prairie dog colonies will be established in the core ferret recovery area on Thunder Basin and over 500 prairie dogs will be spared from death by poison. It is hoped this summer’s prairie dog translocations will pave the way for a successful ferret recovery effort in the near future, further helping to bring this prairie bandit back from the brink of extinction. Ferret reintroduction had been planned for Thunder Basin in the early 2000s, but sylvatic plague swept through the area in 2001 decimating most of the prairie dogs, ferrets’ principal prey, and delaying ferret reintroduction.

In addition to creating habitat for black-footed ferrets, this project has created a unique partnership between U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund, Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. Individuals from these organizations joined together to implement creative management strategies for black-tailed prairie dogs on the grassland. Partnerships like this are the key to fostering communication and achieving common conservation objectives.

“What I find the most valuable about this project are the relationships that have been cultivated as a result of this collaboration,” said Cristi Painter, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist on the Douglas Ranger District in Wyoming. “I think that it lays the ground work for the future in finding creative long term solutions to manage prairie dogs that will meet the needs of everyone.”

Learn more about WWF’s work in the Northern Great Plains