Friday, October 9, 2009

Black-footed ferret reintroduction


Next week I’ll be heading south to the Frenchman River Valley, one of my favourite places in the province. The scenery is quite different than most of the rest of this part of the world, and the wildlife is also somewhat different.

A few years ago bison were brought back to the Grasslands National Park to repopulate a region where they must have existed in their thousands at one time. One piece of the evidence for this is a deep buffalo jump site where the bones of many animals can still be found.

Another important re-introduction has been the smallest of all the canid species in Canada, the swift fox, no larger than many a house cat, that was extirpated in Canada and only reintroduced after many years of tireless work that was started by Miles and Beryl Smeeton of Cochrane, Alberta.

The latest arrivals, or re-arrivals, are a group of thirty-four black-footed ferrets. Several news services have picked up on this story and sent out releases such as WWF Helps Masked Bandit Return to Prairies and
Calgary Zoo helps return black-footed ferrets to Canada after 75 years!

These attractive black-masked relatives of the weasel, the otter and the mink were extirpated in Canada many years ago, having last been seen in Saskatchewan in 1937. No one knows for sure how this population died out, but in other areas the numbers of their main prey, the black-tailed prairie dog (a relative of the ubiquitous gopher, or Richardson’s ground squirrel) crashed mainly because of farming practices. On top of that disease, especially the plague (yes, the same bacterium that caused the black death) probably took a heavy toll.

By the late 1970s it was thought that the ferret had become extinct, but in 1981 wildlife officials in Wyoming found a small group. Captive breeding programs were started in a number of zoos, including Toronto and Calgary in Canada. Many partners cooperated in the captive breeding program and you can find a black-footed ferret microsite at Calgary Zoo’s web site. It contains educational vignettes and will be updated regularly.

Despite some early bumps, which included the near loss of many animals from canine distemper (that I wrote about in my last blog of October 2nd) the program has been a success, and there are now 17 sites in the USA where reintroductions have taken place, as well as one in Mexico and now near the small town of Val Marie, where the Grasslands NP headquarters is located. There are plans to bring more ferrets in future years, as this release is just a start, and the numbers are not sufficient to ensure long-term success. No one has asked the prairie dogs what they think about all this, but for thousands of years the ferrets were part of their every day lives, and even made their homes in the burrows of their prey.

If you want to see black-footed ferrets head to the park. You might find them near prairie dog colonies and you will likely see other wildlife that is not found in many other spots of Canada, let alone Saskatchewan. Even if you don’t the sunsets over the hills are well worth the visit.

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