WASHINGTON (CN) – An experimental population of black-footed ferrets, one of the most endangered mammals in the world, may be re-established in Wyoming’s prairie-dog habitat under a special rule. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the proposal for the “nonessential experimental population” or NEP, today, and requests comments and information from the public.
The agency said it is working with the state of Wyoming and other partners to reintroduce the only ferret native to the United States back into part of its historic range. The population is deemed “nonessential” because the failure of the population would have no significant impact on the overall survival of the species as a whole.
The ferret, a member of the weasel family, was listed as endangered in 1967 under early endangered species legislation and was later grandfathered under the current Endangered Species Act without the designation of critical habitat. In 1982, Congress amended the act to include Section 10(j) to relax the strict prohibitions regarding harming an endangered species in the case of reintroduced populations. “Congress recognized that more flexible reintroduction rules could encourage recovery partners to host such populations on their lands,” the agency said. The 10(j) exception allows for “incidental take” of the species for land owners and managers “provided that the take is unintentional and is in accordance with the existing 10(j) regulation,” the agency said.
Under the NEP designation, the reintroduced ferrets will be treated as “threatened” instead of endangered. Regulations for “take” or harm are less stringent for species designated as threatened than for those designated as endangered.
The agency noted that it has used this strategy successfully with the ferret and other species at risk in the past. Under the special 10(j) rule, the Service has reintroduced ferrets in 11 other states, and elsewhere in Wyoming. Canada and Mexico have also worked to reintroduce the ferrets. While these reintroduction efforts have had “varying degrees of success,” the agency maintains that recovery is “within reach” for this species.
Captive-bred animals from six facilities will be used for the reintroduction effort. The ferrets are placed in prairie-dog colonies because the prairie-dogs comprise ninety percent of the ferrets’ prey and the ferrets use the burrows for shelter.
The ferrets’ recovery “will require participation by at least 9 of the 12 states within the species’ historical range,” the agency said. “Wyoming has 10 percent of the species’ historical range in the United States, and an even higher percentage of habitat that is currently available, more than 3 million acres of prairie dog occupied habitat.”
The historical range of the black-footed ferret spanned an estimated 100 million acres of “intermountain and prairie grassland” from Canada to Mexico and coincided with the ranges of the black-tailed, white-tailed and Gunnison’s prairie dogs. It was believed that this range supported up to a million ferrets, the agency said.
The species is threatened by loss of habitat and prey due to grassland conversion to agricultural uses, prairie dog eradication programs, and non-native diseases. “The last wild population of ferrets was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981, after the species was presumed extinct. Following disease outbreaks at Meeteetse, all surviving wild ferrets were removed from the wild between 1985 and 1987, to initiate a captive-breeding program,” according to the action. No other wild populations have been found since that time.If this rule is finalized as proposed, any ferrets found in Wyoming would be considered part of an NEP. All comments on the proposal must be submitted by June 9.
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