Ferret petition denied, WGFD picks up pieces with landowners
The mid-May decision to reject a petition to reclassify three black-footed ferret populations managed under the 10(j) experimental, nonessential designation of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) was met with relief and support in Wyoming, South Dakota and Arizona.
“Under the ESA, the black-footed ferret is a listed species, and it’s the rarest animal in North America. We’re trying to recover it and get it off the ESA list. This petition would have done severe damage to ferret reintroduction programs in Wyoming as well as recovery programs across the country,” states a news release from the Game and Fish.
“One of the provisions to do that is a 10 (j) ruling, which gives us a lot more flexibility on management. We can put together a set of 10(j) assurances for landowners that allow them to do everything they already do. If we can work out 10(j) provisions the landowners are comfortable with, then we release the ferret. That’s what happened in the Shirley Basin,” explains Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Deputy Director and Chairman of the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team Executive Committee John Emmerich.
He adds the recent petition to relist the ferret was backed by three environmental groups that challenged the treatment of “experimental, non-essential” populations on public land.
“Under 10(j) we can designate an area as an experimental, nonessential populations and that gives us flexibility in management. In their petition they said that shouldn’t be used on public lands. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) said there were adequate protections on both public and private lands and that they will continue to support language in the current 10(j) rules,” says Emmerich.
Nongame Mammal Biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish Martin Greiner adds the WGFD worked with FWS initially to address the petition and assist in the decision making process.
“The petition highlighted some fears of landowners and attempted to undermine the relationships we have built with the private landowners who have been instrumental in moving the ferret recovery program forward,” explains Greiner. “At this point we can start over again with our landowner partners and hopefully get going with reintroducing and monitoring ferrets on private lands.”
Director of Arizona Game and Fish Larry Voyles says the loss of public trust that would have resulted from reclassifying an existing 10 (j) population would almost certainly have hindered, if not crippled, the vast strides made in recovering threatened and endangered species. This is in addition to destroying the foundation of cooperative conservation that has been a major contributing factor in progress already achieved.
Active reintroduction of ferrets into the wild has been ongoing since 1991 and today there are 19 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The species was believed to have gone extinct until a small colony was discovered near Meeteetse in 1981. Canine distemper outbreaks and the possibility of exposure to the plague reduced the population to 18 individuals, which were captured and put into a captive breeding program.
“Of those last 18 animals captured, only seven of the 18 are represented genetically. The other 11 animals were never bred in captivity,” says Greiner.
Of the lack of genetic diversity within the current population estimated at 800 to 1,000 individuals, Greiner says the bottlenecked genetic pool appears to have a minimal impact.
“Ferrets appear to be able to overcome some of these bottlenecks we’ve seen negatively impact other carnivore populations. Lack of genetic diversity doesn’t appear to be as important to the ferret,” notes Greiner.
“It all boils down to the landowners getting back to a comfort level where they’re willing to work with ferret reintroduction again. We’re not going to do it unless landowners are willing to participate, and we’ll start working on it again as a result of the ruling,” says Emmerich.
“Now that we have the final determination on the petition we are planning to revisit our partners and see how we can pick up the pieces and move forward,” adds Greiner. “We take a different approach in Wyoming through focusing on individual relationships with landowners. It’s important to make sure the rules aren’t changed on private landowners down the road. That’s what really concerned us about this petition.”