Private landowners partner for conservation

Nov 1, 2013
by WLJ

— Safe Harbor Agreement a “win-win” for ranchers, endangered ferrets

Officials and private landowners have “ferreted” out a system that might pave the way for conservation in the future; agreements that introduce endangered species onto private land with no impact on land use.

Last week saw the “inaugural” release of black-footed ferrets onto private land in Colorado. The event was a part of the new Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) which provides opportunities for private and tribal landowners to volunteer their lands as reintroduction sites for the endangered ferret.

“It’s a win-win situation. There’s no downside,” said Gary Walker, rancher and landowner. The Walkers hosted a media and community event to see the ferrets released on their property at Walker Ranch, west of Pueblo, CO, where they raise Angus cattle on large swaths of private land.

Walker said he’s been trying for 20 years to get ferrets put onto his property to control his prairie dog populations. He and his family decided long ago against poisoning them over concerns about unintended impacts on other wildlife such as hawks and eagles. He also pointed out that trying to manage them directly— by shooting them—is a timeconsuming, expensive, and ultimately futile effort.

“You’re not having to spend money to put your prairie dog colonies into some type of management. Why wouldn’t you want to start protecting your environment with reintroduced species that are the Godgiven predators to the prairie dog?” Walker characterized the decision to participate in the black-footed ferret SHA as a simple and economic one.

“We realized almost 15 percent of our ranch was occupied by prairie dogs,” he said, explaining that land occupied by prairie dogs is non-productive from a ranching point of view. “They eat [the landscape] down to nothing, and then you get thistles and tumbleweeds growing. Then when they blow away, they beat up, tear down and break the grasses off during the winter. So it’s really devastating for the rancher.”

“I need to make a living off of this ranch,” he continued. “When you take away 10, 15, 20 percent of my habitat for grazing, then you’re hurting me. I have to lay a cowboy off or I have to run fewer cattle. So it’s an economic impact that the introduction of the ferret takes care of.”

He described releasing the ferrets as working for the rancher in terms of keeping prairie dog populations in check naturally.

“Everybody wins. The black-footed ferret wins, the rancher wins, the environmentalists win and everyone who gets to see them wins.”

The program

Michael Thabault of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thanked the Walkers, who are the first for Colorado, for their participation in the program.

“It is a pleasure for us to work with conservationists and land stewards who are willing to step up and show that we can have a working landscape and endangered species conservation on the land.”

He described the program as having “no repercussions to the landowners.”

“[SHA] allows them to work the landscape and for it to be productive for both livestock and wildlife.”

Concerns have been raised in the past about this and related programs by ranchers. According to the worry, if populations of ferrets are established, environmentalist groups could begin agitating for land and wildlife agencies to designate the area critical habitat, thereby undermining the point of the SHA. Everyone to whom WLJ posed this concern dismissed it as a non-issue.

“They have no sway,” said Dr. Della Garelle of environmental groups. She’s director of conservation at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where roughly three-quarters of the world’s black-footed ferret population resides and where captive breeding programs are underway.

“It’s only the Fish and Wildlife Services that would have that ability. The Fish and Wildlife Service gets sued all the time for things like that, so they are not swayed by that.”

Walker also dismissed the concern, urging ranchers with such worries to look into the program.

“Anybody who is against this program is somebody who is not educated in the new laws that exist to protect us,” he said. “If we make Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico ranchers understand what’s going on here, it is a win-win for everybody and I think everyone will flock to it.”

Ken Morgan, program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, praised the event, again underscoring the cooperation between agencies and landowners.

“The important aspect of this day, beyond what we’re doing for the ferrets, is the aspect of wildlife agencies— both state and federal— working in conjunction with private landowners for the conservation of all species of wildlife in the state without regulation; without the threat of somebody coming out and saying, ‘We’re going to change the way you’re going to work your ranch.’”

Program details

The black-footed ferret SHA is open to private and tribal landowners in the ferret’s historic 12-state range.

States include Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Not all properties are applicable. The property must be privately owned or tribally owned. The property must also have “adequate acres” of prairie dog-occupied habitat to sustain 30 breeding pairs of ferrets. This has been estimated to be approximately 1,500-3,000 acres depending upon the variety of the occupying prairie dogs.

The property does not need to be singly owned. Adjacent landowners can collectively enroll lands together. The program provides protections to participating landowners, as well as their non-participating neighbors, against incidental take and does not affect land-use activities beyond mutuallyagreed-upon measures.

Anyone interested in the program can read the entire SHA document online at fws. gov/mountain-prairie/spe cies/mammals/blackfooted ferret/. A printed or electronic copy can be obtained by contacting the Fish and Wildlife Service at 970/ 897-2730 or by emailing

Black-footed ferrets

Black-footed ferrets are a small (2 to 3 pounds) member of the weasel family and the only ferret native to North America. They were thought extinct in the late 1970s, but a small population found in 1981 reignited hopes for saving the species. Eighteen individuals were collected and have been used for the captive breeding program. Today there are an estimated 500 in the wild.

The black-footed ferret is considered one of the most endangered mammals in the world. This stems in part from their specialized prey and habitat needs. They prey all but exclusively on prairie dogs and utilize prairie dog burrows rather than building their own dens. They are also “exquisitely susceptible” to plague, which is very common among prairie dog colonies in the West.

“That’s one of the main reasons they became so endangered and why they had to be rescued from the wild; they were going to die out from plague,” said Garelle.

“One fleabite dose of plague will kill a ferret. We have developed a vaccine with our partners at [U.S. Geological Survey] and even the Army to vaccinate blackfooted ferrets for plague.”

She said that all the ferrets released were vaccinated against plague. Getting boosters to the ferrets in the wild is problematic, however. Efforts and continued studies are underway to make greater use of “wildlife vaccines” for prairie dogs to help prevent outbreaks that would then impact the ferrets. Baits containing oral vaccines have shown great promise in controlling plague and other diseases in wildlife. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor