STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Twenty-five years ago today a dog in Wyoming arrived at its owner's doorstep with a dead ferret in its mouth. This was important because until then it was thought the black-footed ferret was extinct. Within a few years, biologists began a captive breeding program and today there are hundreds of black-footed ferrets in the wild.
But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, while one federal agency is working hard to recover the ferret, another is considering a proposal that could hurt it.
JEFF BRADY: The National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, north of Denver, sits in the middle of a large prairie. Paul Marinari is a federal wildlife biologist, and he's opening a green wooden box that contains a mother and her kits.
(Soundbite of ferrets screeching)
Mr. PAUL MARINARI (Federal Wildlife Biologist): She's just protecting her kits. And this is basically, hey, get out of my space. You know, leave us alone, move on to the next burrow.
BRADY: The center breeds several hundred kits a year. With their long body they look like the pet ferret, which originally came from Europe
Mr. MARINARI: A lot of folks confuse them with the domestic ferret. These guys are a totally different species. This is the only native ferret to North America.
BRADY: Kits are released into the wild at 4 months old, but first they spend a month outside in large cages. Marinari says this gives them an idea of what life on the prairie will be like. They'll face plenty of predators there, including raptors, coyotes and badgers. Biologists try to teach the ferrets to be afraid of these predators.
Mr. MARINARI: We had this thing called Robo-badger. It was this mechanized badger that we would drive around the pens to try and scare the ferrets. And, you know, when the ferrets started riding on the back of the badger, we kind of thought, well, let's move to something else.
BRADY: Back inside, Marinari is looking at a ferret poking its head up out of a tunnel on the bottom of its cage.
Mr. MARINARI: She's doing something that we call periscoping. And that's a behavior that you often see in the wild, where a ferret would pop its head up out of a prairie-dog burrow and basically turn around and take in the entire scene, kind of like a submarine periscope.
BRADY: You may have noticed he said a ferret will pop its head out of a prairie-dog burrow - that's where black-footed ferret lives. They're about the same size or even smaller than these animals, but at night the ferrets go hunting for prairie dogs while they're sleeping. They sneak up and latch onto the animal's throat to suffocate it. Then they eat it and take over its home. But there's a problem with this food source. Prairie dogs have another enemy that doesn't want to eat them but would like to dramatically reduce their numbers.
Ranchers want the Forest Service to poison more prairie dogs in the most successful ferret recovery area in the country; it's in South Dakota. And rancher Kevin Kruse(ph) says these pets are scraping the land of nearly all the grass.
Mr. KEVIN KRUSE (Rancher, South Dakota): My idea of a healthy grassland is that there's grass.
BRADY: Ranchers, often with government help, were largely responsible for the decline of prairie dogs about 60 years ago. And without prairie dogs, ferrets were brought to the verge of extinction. Despite expensive efforts led by the Fish and Wildlife Service to bring ferrets back, the Forest Service is now going to consider proposals to kill more prairie dogs. Kruse says that's good news.
Mr. KRUSE: They've got to give them a tool to go back, poison them out and let that grass come back if it can so that there can be a healthy environment again for the prairie dog and other wildlife, and maybe some grazing.
BRADY: This plan has opponents. Jonathan Proctor with Defenders of Wildlife says it seems like ranchers want every blade of grass on public land for their cattle. But he says prairie dogs and the ferrets who eat them also deserve some land.
Mr. JONATHAN PROCTOR (Defenders of Wildlife): Historically, they occupied 10 to 20 percent of the entire Great Plains. Today they're on much smaller than one percent of the Great Plains.
BRADY: The Forest Service is set to decide the prairie dog poisoning issue over the next year. Meantime, even with the success of the breeding program, biologists say it will be years before a viable population of black-footed ferrets is established in the wild.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
INSKEEP: You can explore a list of other species that made a comeback by going to npr.org.
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