Black-footed ferret recovery plan raises concerns
After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the comment period on the draft Black-footed Ferret Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement on Jan. 23 for 30 days, Wyoming’s livestock and conservation groups have expressed concern over parts of the plan.
“They have been working on a strategy to recover the black footed ferret through its historical range,” says Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank. “FWS was trying to put together an incentive program through the Farm Bill to provide cost sharing to landowners who have prairie dogs dens on their properties.”
The agreement – known as the safe harbor agreement – aimed to encourage landowners to maintain prairie dog dens, since black-footed ferrets require the habitat for their survival.
“FWS just issued a safe harbor agreement range wide, so any private landowners that want to enter in the safe harbor to have reintroduction of ferrets on their property and be protected from regulatory actions can,” explained Frank. “That is great and fine.”
Beginning on Dec. 17, 2012, FWS announced the availability of the programmatic safe harbor agreement, along with a draft environmental assessment for public comment.
“The safe harbor agreement is part of a larger new multi-agency partnership to expand black-footed ferret recovery efforts,” said the FWS on their webpage. “Despite significant recovery successes, the black-footed ferret remains one of the most endangered animals in the world.”
FWS notes that loss of habitat and prey are major contributors in the habitat loss, and as a result, conservation of native grasslands to agricultural land, widespread prairie dog eradication program and fatal, non-native diseases have reduced the ferret habitat to less than two percent of its original range.
“The remaining habitat is now fragmented, with prairie dog towns separated by expanses of agricultural land and other human developments,” the FWS adds.
Frank noted that among the bustle of activity during the holiday season, the agreement went unnoticed by many groups across the country, so they worked to reopen comments for more fair public opinion.
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna explained, “The safe harbor agreement is intended to provide protection to private landowners for a listed species, if they enter into an agreement and agree to maintain or undertake certain practices on private lands.”
Though Frank noted that they had received indication the safe harbor agreement wasn’t going to move forward, she added that at the NRCS State Technical Committee meeting, the NRCS was directed to begin putting together criteria for a program.
“Our board has a lot of concerns, and do did the Wyoming Stock Growers Association,” said Frank. “A contingency from Wyoming met the Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, at that time Dave White, and we got feedback that it wasn’t moving forward.”
“The Wyoming Weed and Pest Council conveyed concerns, as did WACD,” said Frank. “Our concerns deal with the 10J designation statewide.”
The Wyoming Governors Office sent a request in July of 2012 to achieve statewide 10J designation, but Magagna mentioned that they have not received any word from Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether or not that will occur.
“The safe harbor will be limited in Wyoming because it provides no protection on federal lands, so it will have to be in a large private land area to have real meaning,” added Magagna.
“The statewide 10J status would provide protection on public and private lands, and would provide protection whether they were reintroduced or naturally migrated,” Magagna said. “Until we get that, there may be individuals who find merit in the safe harbor, but the only real assurances for landowners would come with a statewide 10J.”
Without the designation, any ferrets that wander on public lands are no longer protected.
“Right now if they reintroduce the ferret on private lands, they have a safe harbor agreement with the private landowners, or in the special areas that are designated as 10J,” Frank continued. “The only area in Wyoming with a 10J designation is in the Shirley Basin.”
The other concern that Frank, Magagna and the Wyoming Weed and Pest share is the lack of a biological opinion on the case.
“The biological opinion is not out yet,” explained Magagna. “We would like to see the biological opinion before we commit ourselves as to whether we support it.”
The biological opinion is a scientific document that does not go out for pubic comment. However, Magagna noted that it could affect the available protections that landowners have.
“They have not committed to us on the timeline for when they will release the opinion,” Magagna added.
Moving forward, though the public comment period has closed, he noted that there has been no indication of a firm deadline for the final agreement to be published.
Additionally, FWS is working on a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for Wyoming, recently releasing the document and an environmental impact statement.
“We have all weighed in on this plan,” said Frank, noting that it remains to be seen whether concerns will be addressed.
History of ferrets
“Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but a combination of human-induced threats brought them to the brink of extinction in the 20th century,” comments the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “In fact, the species was twice believed by scientists to be extinct.”
With a FWS-led breeding and reintroduction program, more than 8,000 kits have been raised in captivity, with more than 3,000 reintroduced into their natural habitat.
“It is estimated that as a result of these efforts, there are currently more than approximately 500 to 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild and another approximately 300 living in breeding facilities,” added FWS.
To learn more about the black-footed ferret recovery plan, visit blackfootedferret.org or fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/blackfootedferret.