Last fall I got a call from Travis Livieri, a black-footed ferret expert and the founder of The Prairie Wildlife Research Foundation. He was going to be in the Conata Basin area of the Badlands National Park doing research on black-footed ferrets and wanted to know if I wanted to tag along for a night of spotlighting. Two nights later I loaded my car with my camera gear, a new flashlight, headlamp, and several packages of Wild Idea’s Blazing Buffalo Snack Sticks.
I drove along highway 44, past our sourcing partners bison ranch, the Conata Basin Buffalo Ranch, which borders the Badlands National Park and a section of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. They too manage their ranch for species diversity and would be thrilled if black-footed ferrets would return to any of their many prairie dog towns.
The light was starting to slip from the sky when I noticed a burrowing owl enjoying the view too. He turned his head to face me and then turned back and flew off into the setting sun.
It was dark when I arrived at the rendezvous site, which was a disheveled camper at the end of an isolated country road, with billions of stars shinning above. Travis gave me the lowdown on how we would proceed as we waited for the others. We then set out in three groups of two, in vehicles that had jerry-rigged spotlights attached to the roofs. The drill went something like this: 1) Drive around in the dark (for a very long time) and look for the flashing green eyes of a black-footed ferret. 2) Go to the prairie dog hole where you spotted the ferret, place an orange flag by it, and stick a long, small cage down into the hole. 3) Check back every hour to see if you have captured a ferret. 4) If someone other than Travis has captured a Ferret, they were to call Travis and meet back at camper headquarters, also know as the Ferret Laboratory.
We had been driving for hours before we spotted out first ferret and flagged our first hole. Three packages of snack stick’s and two hours later we had our first patient. We drove through the dark like a bullet and entered the lonely laboratory.
Like many wildlife projects they are underfunded, and I was very impressed with Travis’s ingenuity for equipment. He first placed dryer hose ventilation tubing into the cage so the ferret would crawl into the tubing. There were slits in the tubing where square cardboard pieces would be placed for makeshift doors. A small dose of gas was given to sedate the ferret, and once the ferret was under the doctoring began.
Travis worked quickly and carefully. He picked ticks off, combed the hair for DNA sampling, gave inoculations, jotted down data, and banded them before placing the ferret back into the cage. We then headed back out to release the ferret where we had found it.
On the fourth and our last ferret of the evening Travis placed the sleeping, tiny creature in my hands. She weighed only a little over a pound, and even though they are quite ferocious when taking their prey, she felt so very fragile. For those moments her life was literally in my hands.
On our last swing through we removed any cages from holes where we had sightings. I was hoping I would see a ferret close enough in it’s natural environment to get a photograph and just when my eyes were ready to slam shut from exhaustion there was another green flash! Our night of spotlighting was over and as we said our goodbyes, faint pink hues started to show on the horizon.
I headed for home along the edge of the Badlands in the soft morning light. I was so exhilarated I didn’t think it could get any better, but then I rounded out onto the prairie bottom next to the Conata Ranch and saw a herd of big horn sheep grazing! I had to pinch myself to be sure it wasn’t a mirage. Delirious with joy I followed them on foot for a while until a buck encouraged me to move along.
Back in my car and down the road by the Conata Basin Ranch, the buffalo watched from the hilltop. Wow - this was just too much! What a beautiful natural world we have. My mind went back to the endangered ferret, the slim chances of their survival, and that their survival depends on us. Although they need us, I’m pretty sure we need them more.
For more information on black-footed ferrets and the Prairie Wildlife Research Foundation, click here.