Memories of Spotlighting Ferrets

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.

National Grasslands Black Footed Ferret Sign

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.

Burrowing Owl

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.

Black Footed Ferret Research

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.

Travis Levieri Prairie Wildlife Research

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 Levieri Prairie Wildlife Research Foundation

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.

Ferret Release Conata Basin

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.

Jill O'Brien Spotlighting Ferrets

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.

Black Footed Ferret Conata Basin 

Badlands National Park

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.

Big Horn Sheep Conata Basin

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. 

Buffalo Bison

For more information on black-footed ferrets and the Prairie Wildlife Research Foundation, click here.

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  • So impressed with the mission of Wild Idea Buffalo Co and sidebars like efforts to keep black ferrets as part of prairie life.

    Gerald Carl
  • My heart swells up and I get tears it is so wonderful to see. The black footed ferret will be the savior of the Prairie dog. We have a BFF introduction going on here in Colorado and I pray for the critters. Pure magic.

    Patrick Murphy
  • When I was young my parents had a giant book with stories about the west. I don’t recall the name of the book but the one thing I remember most was the stories about buffalo. It described herds moving as one and making thunderous noise. So happy to see the return of these beautiful animals.

    Gordon Burns
  • I really enjoyed reading about your experience! Travis is my brother, and it’s always cool to hear about and see more of his work.

    Taylor Livieri
  • Barbara, my wife, and I were living in Cody, Wyoming, when the black-footed ferrets were found on the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. What a success story they have become and let’s celebrate when we have successes. Thanks Jill for the night on the prairie.

    Lee Myers
  • What a wonderful species adventure…. I bet the schools would love this as a take off teaching point for science, botany, ecology and photojournalism. Please offer it to them. I know you are very busy but this little program you put together was very special. I’m going to order some of those Buffalo sticks too!

    linda garcia
  • Thanks for your comments and support folks. To answer the questions that came through:
    Linda – Contact for information on participating in a night of Spotlighting.
    Sandy – We would love to have Ferrets on our lands, and hopefully one day we will.

    Jill O'Brien
  • When I visited the Badlands in 2011, I first learned about the special survival links between the Prairie Dogs, the Black Footed Ferret and the Buffalo. Any chance of relocating any of these little wonders of nature onto your lands in the future?

    Sandy Pearsall
  • cant tell you how much your stories, and all your work, help restore my faith in humanity!

  • Despite the awful hits through over 200 years of “civilized” onslaught to the exquisite beauty that nature has to offer there, I am stoked to read again that you embrace an inspired longing to help restore a bit of paradise on earth. May the Grace of God be yours to wield in all ways impassioned keepers of the long grass prairie.

    Vernon Cross
  • Great story and great work – we trap ferrets with Travis too! There is much work to be done for these endangered animals and Travis is on the front line. Thank you for telling the story and enhancing it with beautiful photos.

    Mark Martin & Susan Foote-Martin
  • Cool!!!!

    Angela Anderson
  • Great story. Great pictures. Great writing…move over Dan! Hah! Thanks, Jill.

    Nancy H
  • A beautiful experience I’m sure and thanks for sharing it. It is a shame what man has done over the years to the
    environment and to the animals. Hope you have more of these experiences to share in the future.
    Thank you!!!

  • Great work! Thank you for your compassion.

    Jim Baillargeon

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