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Ferret food: Team considers program to encourage prairie dog habitat

Written by Christy Martinez

A new program proposed by the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team wouldn’t look to add more prairie dogs in Wyoming, but rather would manage those already in existence in a way that would support black-footed ferret reintroduction and recovery.
The program’s main premise would be to pay landowners incentives to keep prairie dogs on their land, which, in turn, would facilitate black-footed ferret introduction. Black-footed ferrets have been listed on the Endangered Species List since it was created in 1973.
WGFD Deputy Director John Emmerich chairs the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team, and he says, “Black-footed ferrets live on prairie dogs. Without prairie dogs, we don’t have black-footed ferrets. We’re looking to provide an incentive for landowners to support sufficient acres for prairie dogs to recover ferrets and other species that use prairie dog towns.”
The program would also provide assurances that landowners would continue to raise livestock and run their operation as usual, and would provide management for prairie dogs that move outside enrolled acres.
“About two years ago it was obvious to the committee that we’ve perfected reintroduction. We raise many ferrets in captivity, and if we have good release sites they do well in the wild, as long as they have enough prairie dogs,” continues Emmerich.
The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Plan targets species recovery at 3,000 breeding adults in their historic range, which they say would take 500,000 acres of prairie dogs in scattered towns. Currently there are more than four million acres of prairie dogs in 12 states, but Emmerich says most are scattered in small populations not large enough to support ferrets.
“We’re trying to come up with a package of incentives that would allow landowners to sustain their operations and still have prairie dogs on their place,” says Emmerich, noting that would translate into a payment in return for 2,000-acre contiguous blocks of prairie dogs – the amount determined sufficient for ferret release.
The concept paper titled “From Liability to Asset: A Cooperative Conservation Initiative for Ranching & Wildlife on Prairie Dog Occupied Rangeland,” lays out a cooperative approach between the involved agencies and interests in the 12-state prairie dog population area. Those include, among others, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), Wyoming Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mark Eisele of the King Ranch in Laramie County.
As a rancher and landowner, Eisele says his role with the program is twofold – to be helpful, and to be a “watchdog.”
“There are some producers who want prairie dogs, and who want to be paid for them, and if the public wants benefit from wildlife, they should pay for those benefits,” says Eisele, continuing that his bigger concern is public lands grazing. “I don’t want anybody losing a single AUM to a prairie dog. If we bring in more prairie dogs and cut AUMs, that’s unacceptable.”
“I want to make sure that public lands don’t get sacrificed with this program like they did with wild horses,” he adds.
Eisele says he’s also watching where the funding comes from, as many assume it would come through the NRCS and Farm Bill programs.
“I’ve spent some time working with the conservation districts, and we want to make sure their programs in Wyoming stay intact, EQIP in particular,” explains Eisele.
Wyoming State Conservationist Xavier Montoya says he feels like EQIP and WHIP aren’t quite the right place for the program, but rather the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP).
“A 10-year rental agreement would pay landowners for 10 years to do whatever it is the program interests want them to do to manage prairie dogs to make sure the ferret can be reintroduced,” says Montoya. “NRCS isn’t in the business of reintroducing endangered species, so our part would be to pay somebody to manage for prairie dogs.”
Emmerich says that payment hasn’t yet been determined, although NRCS county rental rates have been considered as a basis.
“The goal is to set it at a level high enough to attract landowners to participate,” he says.
Regarding USDA APHIS Wildlife Services and its role as the control agency for prairie dogs outside program boundaries, Montoya says, “I think this could really be successful, but all of our budgets have been cut. Wildlife Services will manage the prairie dogs to make sure they’re staying where they’re supposed to, but if their budget’s been cut, how will they do that? If we don’t have everybody at the table, this won’t work.”
As this article went to press, the program’s interest groups traveled to Washington, D.C. to communicate the concept to federal agencies in their national offices and to national agricultural organizations.
“If implemented, this would be a multi-agency effort,” says Emmerich. “The financial resources would come through the NRCS and some of their programs like GRP, which would make payments to landowners. The regulatory assurances would be developed in concert between the state wildlife agencies and FWS, which approves the final regulatory assurances. Boundary control would be under Wildlife Services, and the state wildlife agencies would be engaged in all of these activities and working with interested landowners.”
“We have some producers who would like to see this happen,” comments Eisele. “There are some who are great at managing prairie dogs on their own, with livestock grazing and cyclical hunting areas, and there are places where they could get paid for it, and that would be great. However, it’s a matter of defending the rights of the minority but the will of the majority. I want to be sure to protect the rest of us.”
“We have more acres now than the objective,” says Emmerich of Wyoming. “We’re not looking for more prairie dogs in Wyoming to meet these goals – we just need to manage the ones we’ve got in the right way to support ferrets. If this program becomes reality, we think it will be an important tool to recovering the black-footed ferret.”
“The only way we can get enough release sites is to have private landowner participation, and that’s why we’re trying to develop an incentive program,” he adds.
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..