It is not simply rareness that attracts us to endangered wildlife. Though a Fairburn agate or a Folsom spear point might be fascinating, their numbers can not increase or decrease. There is nothing dynamic about populations of inanimate objects. They can not vanish from Earth. They are not forever struggling for existence. They do not fight for their existence as an endangered fish, or a bird, or mammal can.
Over the years a good portion of my friends have been biologist. A good portion of them have been that special breed of biologist known as endangered species biologists. My first adult job was as a bird-of-prey biologist – a technician really – assigned to inventory some of the high production areas of the State of South Dakota. That was in the nineteen seventies, when the endangered species act was new and its ramification still a bit foggy. It didn’t take long for the state’s only bird-of-prey biologist to become friends with the first wave of endangered species biologists, newly produced from a select few universities. Perhaps the first real endangered species biologist I came into contact with was Con Hillman. He was working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He was the ferret biologist in a time when endangered species biology was just beginning. He haunted the nights of a place called Conata Basin because, when the prairie dogs numbers are high, Conata Basin might be the world’s premiere black footed ferret habitat. In a show of inter-agency co-operation I rode with Con through several lonely nights, with spotlight sweeping the endless prairie dog towns. Though Con had found a few in his short career I never saw a ferret when I rode with him. I remember the nights as an eternal dream – featureless, tortured land in the spotlight’s white beam.
Conata Basin is a large, mostly flat piece of the Great Plains sandwiched between the Badlands National Park and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is mostly public land administered by the US Forest Service and, coincidentally, only a couple dozen miles from my home. In the early twentieth century the basin was invaded by cattle ranchers. During the wet years, and once the hordes of prairie dogs were poisoned off, Conata Basin was a notable beef production area complete with a railroad shipping point and a town of a hundred souls. Con Hillman had done field work in the Basin in the mid-sixties, following a period of drought and during a hiatus in the poisoning of prairie dogs. He had found a few ferrets and documented their lives just before they were being designated as one of the first Endangered Species. In fact, at that time it was considered the most endangered mammal on Earth.
That was just before the prairie dog poisoning program began again. By the time I rode with Con, the ferrets were gone and Con Hillman, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species biologist more closely resembled the Maytag repairman. It was lonely out there: no prairie dogs, not ferrets, not much life at all. He drove for years through those black, Great Plains nights. Even after the US Fish and Wild Agency declared the black footed ferret extinct Conrad Hillman drove and scanned the darkness. To the cub-biologist riding silently beside him he became more interesting than the chance of sighting a ferret. Con, with those searching eyes following the scan of the spotlight, seemed a little deranged and it occurred to me that he might as well be looking for unicorns.
Since that first introduction to the obsession of endangered species biologists, I have come to know many and have come to expect a certain distraction. I have a picture of the best-man at my wedding. He is wearing a specially designed hat with a rubber, semen-catching bumper attached like a crown of laurels. There is an ecstatic peregrine falcon copulating with the hat and my friend wears the oddest smile. It is not a silly impish smirk that might be expected. It is the grin of pride and achievement.
I have seen the same strange look on the faces of the hip -wader-clad ichthyologists as they lovingly milk pallid sturgeon eggs from the oldest fish to grace the bottom of the Missouri River. I heard it in the voice of another friend when he answered a late night telephone call in our motel room in Jackson, Wyoming. In the autumn of 1981 Bob Oakleaf was the endangered species biologist for the state of Wyoming. We had spent a long day working with peregrine falcons in the Teton Mountains. We’d had a few beers after an exhausted dinner and a six pack sat on the darkened bed stand between our beds. Through the fog of sleep I heard Bob talking earnestly to one of his colleagues. The call was to report that, after a decade-long absents, there were claims that a ranch dog had brought a dead black footed ferret into a ranch house near Meeteetse, Wyoming. The report turned out to be true and in a few years Bob was in charge of protecting a captive colony of black footed ferrets that would grow to re-populate the Great Plains.
That night in Jackson, it was just a crazy report and I didn’t even wake up enough to ask about it. But I felt the silence go thick when Bob hung up the phone. There was the pop and fizz of a can of beer being opened. I imagined him laying there in bed with open eyes, sipping the beer, thinking over the possibilities.
Now, in 2008, after a hiatus in prairie dog poisoning, the Conata Basin is again covered by huge prairie dog towns. The progeny of those Meeteese ferrets were finally released there in the late nineteen nineties and now there are claims that Ferrets are again breeding there. A new endangered species biologist is watching for them and Mike Forsberg made friends with him. For a solid year Mike told me I had to meet Travis Livieri. Mike said I needed to ride with him over the night-time dog towns of Conata Basin. I resisted because I had bumped over that wasteland thirty years before and had found nothing but the wasted nights. I resisted because I knew that, with few exceptions, endangered species biology is a loosing proposition and witnessing the pain of another species lost is just too tough for me. I didn’t want anything to do with another night of watching the hollow eyes of the biologist beside me as he searched for what might as well be unicorns. I didn’t want anything to do with ferret hunting until Mike made me sit down in front of his computer. I knew he was going to show me pictures and I sat quiet as luscious sunsets, mysterious river courses, unsuspicious birds and animals came up clear and life-like, profound in the naturalness. I was half lulled into another dimension when a new series of pictures came up. They were pictures of black footed ferrets and I leaned toward the screen to gaze into the curious eyes behind the tiny black masks. Mike clicked the mouse and another picture of a ferret appeared. This one was quizzical and slightly startled. Then a slick one appeared, diving into a prairie dog hole; next, a pair of twin robbers looking over the top of a bare mound of dirt. “Unicorns,” I whispered and when I looked up to Mike, he grinned.
I met Travis Livieri about ten o’clock at night on dirt road on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands that I had known many years before. I had met Con Hillman on the same road and I groaned to see a familiar, silly, spotlight on the roof of the pickup truck. It felt like I was in a thirty-year time warp. But, when Travis jumped out of his pickup, he had his ball cap on backward and, with the opening of his door, a wave of Eddie Van Halen hit me like a time warp of different sort. Travis was young enough to be my son, but he gripped my hand with an enthusiasm that my son would probably lack. I liked him right away, locked my pickup (for some unknown reason) and rode with him to his camp-trailer that served as a laboratory, crash-pad, and equipment storage room. There was still a little light in the sky and Travis pointed to it. “I’m kind of nocturnal,” he said. Let me show you some stuff while I’m waiting for the light to get comfortable.
The trailer was filled with equipment I had never seen before. Traps at the end of four foot long corrugated plastic pipes, a table piled with small-scale anesthesia equipment, a clear plastic tube built like a miniature MRI machine. There were clipboards with charts and graphs, tiny pet crates, a set of scales, a cabinet of veterinary supplies. I stood a little awe struck. It had never occurred to me that anyone on Earth actually handled Ferrets. “You get to touch them?” I asked.
“You bet,” Travis said as he peeked out the door at the darkening sky. “Real soon now,” he pulled his cap down and wiggled his eyebrows, “Let’s roll.”
Of course I didn’t think we would see a ferret. I was hoping, at best, for a glimpse of one’s famous green eyes. But what we saw were lots of ferrets: running ferrets, ferrets standing quizzically at the mouth of prairie dog holes, ferrets up on their back legs, pairs of ferrets, families of ferrets, ferrets interacting with other odd night creatures. By following one to a hole and slipping one of the corrugated pipes with the trap on the end into the hole, we watched them being captured. They simply walked up the pipe and into the trap. Imagine!
We took them back to the lab and anesthetized them. We took blood samples. We checked for parasites. We clipped tiny bits of hair and tucked them into carefully labeled envelopes. We looked at their teeth and smelled their breath. I wanted to put one in my pocket and take it home but settled for stolen strokes of their weasely fur. I thought they would be the size of house cats but they were much smaller, delicate, a hint of frailness. And when that dawned on me, I shook my head. Of course they would be frail.
Early in the morning I watched Travis as he sipped a tenth Mountain Dew and did his paper work. I thought how happy he seemed. He laughed that he would not be going outside anymore that day. It was too light. He smiled and turned up more Eddie Van Halen. Except for the general imbalance he was not at all like Con Hillman, this endangered species biologist had something to study – something to hope for – a reason to rock. I thought of Mike Forsberg’s pictures that had brought me here. I couldn’t help thinking of them as photographs of unicorns and me as a convert and possible believer. Photos of unicorns, I thought, folded into the pages of a book, tucked discreetly between the covers. Who knows what happens in the darkness of an unopened book. Maybe such photographs can multiply.