A father and daughter team with Yorkton ties had a rather unique holiday experience this summer.
Local veterinarian Dr. Kenn Wood, and his daughter Sarah spent three nights walking across Grasslands National Park in the far south of the province using a spotlight to search for black-footed ferrets.
“I became interested in the black-footed ferret (BFF) in veterinary school when I learned about the reintroduction of the BFF to Grasslands National Park (GNP) in 2009. While attending the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species conference in Red Deer this February, I attended a presentation about the BFF Monitoring program and I was inspired get involved as a ‘citizen scientist’,” explained Sarah.
The black-footed ferret, the only ferret species native to North America, was at one time thought extinct.
In fact the ferret was so rare “by the end of the 1960s they thought the last ones were extinct,” said Saltcoats-born filmmaker Kenton Vaughan in a 2010 Yorkton This Week interview. Vaughn is the producer of the film. In the case of Saskatchewan it was in the 1930s the ferret was listed as extinct locally.
“We really don’t understand what happened to cause them to disappear in Canada,” said Pat Fargey, Species at Risk/Ecosystem Management Specialist with Grasslands National Park in Southern Saskatchewan in a 2010 companion piece in Yorkton This Week.
There is a likelihood efforts to poison coyotes, and before that wolves, to protect livestock, was a contributing factor, but Fargey said not all Prairie dogs were eliminated, so the ferret’s demise is something of a mystery.
Then in the 1980s “a ranch dog in Wyoming brought one in,” said Vaughan, which led to the discovery of an isolated wild population. “It was a second chance to save them,” he said.
The black-footed ferret teetered on the brink of total extinction, but is now something of a shining example of what can be done to turn the trend and save a species from disappearing forever.
Fargey said the black-footed ferret, which is a mid-sized member of the weasel family that inhabits grassland ecosystems where prairie dogs are present, “were quite wide-ranging. They followed the Prairie dog.”
However, fate seemed against the ferret as canine distemper and sylvatic plague decimated the Wyoming colony.
Naturalists finally stepped in and live trapped the last 18 wild ferrets, and began a captive breeding program to save the ferret.
“When there was only 18 they were probably the rarest animal in the world,” said Vaughn.
While captive breeding proved a major challenge, it did work.
“It doesn’t breed easily in captivity. It’s really, really complicated,” said Vaughan. “… Breeding them is much more difficult in captivity than it is the wild.”
Today there are several breeding centres across the United States, and at the Toronto Zoo, the only Canadian location. The combined effort has led to releases back to the wild in numerous locations, including the Grasslands Park.
“There’s now probably about 1,000 in the wild,” said Vaughan.
Among the wild populations is one based on releases into Grasslands National Park starting in 2009.
“I was intrigued to visit GNP, Canada’s only national prairie park, and to learn about the many species at risk therein, including the BFF, the Burrowing Owl, the Greater Sage-Grouse, the Greater Short-horned Lizard, and the Swift Fox,” said Sarah Wood. “The BFF is the only native species of ferret in North America, and it is also one of the rarest mammals in North America. The decline of the BFF in the prairies is attributed to habitat loss, prairie dog population declines, poisoning and trapping, and diseases such as canine distemper, sylvatic plague, and human influenza. The BFF was thought to be extinct until a Wyoming farm dog brought home a BFF in its mouth in 1981. Successful captive breeding programs have since been established, including a breeding program at the Toronto Zoo, to allow reintroduction of the BFF to its historic range in the US, Mexico, and Canada.”
Kenn Wood said the specific program regarding the BFF was designed to help track the Grasslands population, adding the monitoring program has been going for a decades already.
Sarah explained the process.
“Each night we met for a briefing at 9:30 pm where we were assigned a prairie dog colony to monitor for the evening,” she said. “We loaded up our packs with our heavy gear, including a spotlight and batteries, ferret traps and transfer tubes, reflectors to mark prairie dog burrows, a radio, and a GPS.
“We then drove out to our assigned colonies and began spotlighting for ferrets.
“Each colony had several markers whose location was programmed into our GPS. Every hour until 6 a.m. we had to make a circuit of the markers on the colony, spotlighting for ferret eye shine along the way.
“Any BFF sightings were radioed in and ferret traps were set at the corresponding prairie dog burrows. Any trapped ferrets were examined by the Parks Canada veterinarian, Dr. Todd Shury. Trapped ferrets were tagged, sexed, vaccinated, and re-released.”
Kenn said the work was hard, albeit interesting. He said participants carry a huge spotlight, and associated battery pack, and use the light to pan the Prairie hoping to find a ferret poking its head out of a Prairie Dog hole, their usual residence.
When the Woods were out with the program it was hot, and the mosquitos thick.
“They’d had lots of rain and there were puddles all around,” said Kenn, noting that was ideal to produce a voracious population of mosquitos.
“My face was just a mass of little mosquito bites,” he said, adding next time he’d take protective gear.
It was also hot, the only respite was an occasional escape to the truck and the air conditioner, but even there you had to fight mosquitos who snuck in whenever the doors opened.
And then there was the possibility of running across less friendly denizens of the Prairies. Participants wore special leggings in case they roused a rattlesnake.
The gear, heat, mosquitos, combined to make the four trips around the assigned Prairie Dog Colony pretty exhausting work, admitted Kenn.
“They have 20 to 50 acres. Some are bigger, some are smaller,” he said. He added volunteers were aided by previously placed global positioning system markers which they tracked on their trip through the colonies.
Yet asked if he would do again Kenn smiled and replied, “oddly enough yes.”
The ferrets proved elusive on the nights the Woods prowled the Prairies.
“Only one of our team members was able to successfully spot and trap a ferret,” said Sarah. “The successful ferret tracker was a high school student with aspirations to study veterinary medicine, so everyone was really excited for him. My dad and I did not spot a ferret on our colonies; however, we saw many other species, including badgers, black-tailed prairie dogs, swift foxes, bison, and mule deer.”
Kenn said while spotlighting a ferret themselves would have been the ultimate experience of the three-days, there was more to it than that.
“You get to be part of a team,” he said, adding in that regard there was a quick bond on camaraderie which made them happy one person in the group actually spied the elusive ferret. “… Everybody bonded together on the mission to save the black footed ferret.
Of course the BFF had always been something of a mystery.
“Throughout their history, black-footed ferrets have been elusive,” explained the BFFRIT website. “None of the early explorers, mountain men, or pioneers who crossed the Great Plains by wagon-train ever mentioned ferrets. They were occasionally listed in fur company records from the upper Missouri River basin in the early to mid-1800s. Black-footed ferrets were not officially recognized by scientists until 1851 in a book by naturalist John James Audubon and the Reverend John Bachmann.
“Audubon and Bachman first described black-footed ferrets in 1851 from a single specimen found near the lower waters of the Platte River. They were not mentioned again by science until 1857. Even at the time they were thought to be rare, secretive and elusive.
“They were so elusive to humans that shortly after Audubon’s description, controversy brewed over their true existence. For over 25 years no other specimens were obtained, nor were they observed in the wild. Also, the original specimen had disappeared, adding fuel to the controversial fire.
“Then, in 1874, Dr. Elliot Coues took on the challenge of assisting Audubon and issued a request through the popular magazine American Sportsmen for specimens and was soon rewarded. With these he was able to augment Audubon’s description of black-footed ferrets and relieve the natural history community of this controversy. Black-footed ferrets did indeed exist.”
Still the effort was a great learning experience.
“The overall objective is to encourage Canadians to visit GNP and to appreciate its vulnerable prairie ecosystems and species,” said Sarah. “Since the BFF is very cute and very rare, it is the ideal poster child for the park. The population data gathered during our nightly BFF monitoring helps GNP to assess the health of the BFF population and to decide how many new captive ferrets to release into the park each year.
“Information about BFFs also provides insight into the health of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog population, the BFFs primary food source.”
It was also hard work.
“GNP is designated as the Darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada and it’s nightly show of stars, northern lights, and meteors is worth the trip,” said Sarah.
“However, GNP could also be designated as one of Canada’s most notorious mosquito preserves, so don’t forget your bug net! Our nightly excursions were physically and mentally exhausting, so it was important to bring lots of snacks and drinks, and to take frequent breaks. The Parks Canada staff boosted our spirits with regular radio updates of species sightings throughout the night. Each morning we were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise, even if we didn’t happen to spot a ferret that night.”
While the elusive ferret was not spied Sarah said the program was worth it.
“The experience was absolutely worth the time and effort,” she said. “Although we did not spot a ferret, I gained a tremendous appreciation for the prairie grasslands ecology and its species, and I intend to visit GNP again next summer. The park staff emphasizes that even an absence of ferret sightings is still valuable data for the BFF recovery effort. It is very gratifying to know that you can play a role in the recovery of an endangered species, even as an ordinary citizen, and it is encouraging to meet other team members who care about species at risk.
“I would highly recommend the BFF Monitoring program to any interested volunteers. The program is well organized and the Parks Canada staff are both enthusiastic and knowledgeable.”