FORT BELKNAP — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released 32 endangered black-footed ferrets into a 1,000-acre prairie dog colony on the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Officials released the ferrets Thursday as part of an effort to bolster populations in the state, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
“This is kind of a joyous occasion for us,” said John Hughes of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
He said disease killed previous releases of ferrets at the reservation in 1997 and 1998. Plague also killed prairie dogs, the main prey of ferrets.
Fort Belknap was chosen because of plague mitigation efforts that could increase the chances of survival for the recently released ferrets, Hughes said.
“Prairie dog populations have rebounded to the point where we think it’s appropriate to try another release,” he said. “And especially with ongoing plague mitigation, we’re hopeful the ferrets will stick this time. So it’s a very exciting opportunity for us.”
Prairie dog burrows have been dusted with insecticide intended to reduce the chances of plague cutting into the ferret populations, Hughes said.
The ferrets were raised at the Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado. Males weigh up to 2 pounds and can reach 20 inches in length.
Hughes said about 60 percent of the ferrets released Thursday were males to deal with the increased mortality of males, which is about double that of females. Coyotes and great-horned owls kill ferrets.
The reintroduction at Fort Belknap is being made by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventres tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Jonathan Proctor of Defenders of Wildlife said the long-term survival of ferrets will require a financial incentive for private landowners to bring ferrets back. There are about 500 ferrets now, mostly in the West. Officials said the goal is to eventually have 3,000 ferrets.
“Saving an animal from extinction is very important to the majority of Americans,” he said.
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