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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

American pioneers saw the endless stretches of the Great Plains as a place to produce grain and beef for an expanding country. They did so at the expense of the native prairie ecosystem and the animals that thrived there, including the black footed ferret. This long, skinny predator with a raccoon-like mask was once considered extinct. But thanks to a concerted effort, they are now on their way back.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: It's 11 at night. Forest Service biologist Randy Griebel left his kids in bed and he's heading out for his second shift of the day, spotlighting for ferrets in South Dakota's Conata Basin.

RANDY GRIEBEL: All right, I guess we're ready to go.

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SHOGREN: He drives off-road over a vast stretch of grasslands that are pockmarked with bare mounds of Earth, prairie dog burrows. Ferrets hunt at night.

GRIEBEL: They do their killing below ground.

SHOGREN: They sneak up on prairie dogs while they sleep in their burrows and bite their throats. Ferrets live in these burrows, too.

Griebel's first career was in the Army. He's compact and muscular. He uses his right hand to direct a beam of light from the top of his truck across the landscape.

GRIEBEL: All right, so what we're looking for is like really super bright emerald green eye shine.

SHOGREN: Ferrets are nocturnal. Even at night they spend most of their time underground, so it's hard to find them.

GRIEBEL: We're just going to drive this race track over and over and over and over.

SHOGREN: Hours pass.

GRIEBEL: So sometimes you'll see a little glimpse of something and say, oh, what's that? Sometimes it's a ferret. Sometimes it's just a bug...

(LAUGHTER)

GRIEBEL: ...faking me out. Then about four in the morning, you'll start hallucinating and you'll be seeing green eyes shine all over the place.

SHOGREN: Biologists will keep up this nightly ritual throughout the fall in hopes of counting every ferret and giving it a medical exam. It might seem like an absurd amount of work for a relative of the weasel, but Griebel says he's driven by the fact that his own species nearly annihilated ferrets by poisoning prairie dogs - their prey.

GRIEBEL: This species was almost extinct. It was literally down to just a handful of individuals. And the only reason they were down that low was because of what humans did. It went through so much, now we're going through so much to try to bring it back.

SHOGREN: The fact that it's been so hard to save ferrets, that drives him all the more. He's part of a group of biologists who've devoted their lives to saving the native of the Great Plains. It's been 30 years of ups and downs.

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SHOGREN: Dean Biggins has been the rollercoaster ride since the beginning. He's driving me through another ferret habitat on a rainy day in nearby Badlands National Park. Biggins recalls how he felt in 1981. Experts believed ferrets were extinct. Then a ranch dog discovered a remnant population in Wyoming.

DEAN BIGGINS: It was really a moment of elation then. It was a feeling of that, boy, this is really something. I'll actually get to see one of these animals, which I'd never done except as a mounted specimen.

SHOGREN: But a few years later, that lone population started dying - fast. Biologists trapped every last one - 18 in all. They created a successful captive breeding program then started putting captive-born ferrets back into the wild. Biggins remembers at first it didn't go well.

BIGGINS: They just seemed very naive when they got out here.

SHOGREN: Coyotes, owls and other predators gobbled them up.

BIGGINS: We just couldn't keep them alive.

SHOGREN: Biologists figured out that they had to give young captive ferrets more training before releasing them to the wild. When their keepers put the captive ferrets in outdoor pens with burrows in them, the ferrets learned to hide at any sign of danger. But it's been much harder to protect ferrets against a microscopic threat. In 2008, South Dakota's Canata Basin had the most ferrets - 350 of them. Then Randy Griebel started noticing something strange.

GRIEBEL: We just could not find any ferrets. It's like, man, they should be out here. I don't know where they're at.

SHOGREN: Soon, the ferrets' main prey was also disappearing. Prairie dogs started dying by the hundreds of thousands. Plague was the culprit. Researchers were caught by surprise because plague had never been in South Dakota before. It's taken a Herculean effort to save the 70 or so ferrets that are left here. To save the ferrets they had to help out the prairie dogs. Plague is carried by fleas. So, Griebel took crews of ATVs and started spraying insecticide dust into every prairie dog burrow - hundreds of thousands of them.

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SHOGREN: Crews still spray insecticide dust. It takes 5 months every year to get every hole. What are they doing?

GRIEBEL: So, basically he's driving up the burrow, he's inserting the wand right there.

SHOGREN: Squirting white powder into the hole and moving to the next burrow.

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SHOGREN: At about 2:30 in the morning, Griebel spins his truck around for another lap. I spot a flash of emerald green.

GRIEBEL: I see you, buddy.

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SHOGREN: We jump out into the moonlight.

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GRIEBEL: See the eye shine? He's sitting there looking at us right now.

SHOGREN: I see him, yeah, yeah. Griebel quietly set traps.

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SHOGREN: We come back every hour to check. Nothing. The sun is rising as Griebel checks his traps one last time.

GRIEBEL: We got him. Did you see him? That is so awesome. Oh, you're tiny.

SHOGREN: That's such a high noise. The ferret sounds an alarm as Griebel puts it into a small crate. We take the ferret for a checkup in a camping trailer that's parked in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a sea of grass in South Dakota's Canata Basin.

TRAVIS LIVIERI: Skeeters are brutal, dude.

GRIEBEL: Yeah.

SHOGREN: Biologist Travis Livieri from Prairie Wildlife Research says the ferret is a female born last year.

LIVIERI: Looks like she had a litter. Whether the kits are still around or not, we cannot say for sure.

SHOGREN: Still, this is a good news. Last year, many females didn't have litters. Livieri gives her shots, vaccines for distemper and plague, combs her to see if she has fleas.

LIVIERI: She looks clean. That's good.

SHOGREN: What do you think their prospects are?

LIVIERI: I think that the ingenuity of humans and science is the future of black footed ferrets.

SHOGREN: Like better vaccines to keep ferrets safe from plague. Livieri has been at this for 18 years. He was surprised by how quickly he fell for the prairies and the ferret. He says it's a majestic place. It's quintessential America. He says bringing back a species that's only found here is worth whatever it takes.

LIVIERI: When you look into those little eyes and they look back at you. You see something. You want to help right that wrong. They belong here. We were the ones that destroyed their habitat and took them out of it. So, we owe it to them to give it our best shot to restore them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FERRET)

SHOGREN: Wow, she skedaddled, huh?

LIVIERI: Yes, she went...

SHOGREN: We release the ferret in the same place we caught her. A whole night's work for one animal. Randy Griebel says anytime you work this hard, good things should happen.

GRIEBEL: I'm hoping all this hard work pays off eventually.

SHOGREN: A few weeks later, Griebel caught the same ferret again. That time, he spotted at least two offspring with her. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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