- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

WILLIAMS, Ariz. (AP) - Fresh from being trained to hunt prairie dogs and maneuver the outdoors, a group of endangered black-footed ferrets was released Wednesday on a northern Arizona ranch to boost the population of the animals that once disappeared from the state.

The release of 25 ferrets at the Espee Ranch near Williams marked the second reintroduction of the animals on private property in the country under an agreement with landowners that includes minimal land-use restrictions and no penalties if one of the ferrets accidentally is killed. The first was on a ranch near Pueblo, Colorado, last year.

“It’s really the easiest way to make sure they won’t be encumbered on their own land,” said Steve Spangle, the Arizona field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The ferrets chattered and flashed their teeth as they were carried in kennels to prairie dog burrows on the property owned by Babbitt Ranches where they’ll make their home and hunt the rodents. The ferrets were hesitant to run out onto the vast expanse of grassland. One hissed at the crowd and flipped repeatedly in a tube before scurrying into the burrow minutes later, popping its head out once again as if to say a final goodbye.

Scientists had written off the species as extinct until a solitary enclave of 18 was found near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981. The last one seen in Arizona before a reintroduction program began was in 1931 between Flagstaff and Williams.

Before they could be released Wednesday, the young ferrets had to prove their survival skills at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colorado. After getting a taste for prairie dog through feedings, the ferrets had to kill three prairie dogs on their own and stay outside for a month.

“We have to have a reasonable chance of success before we release them,” said Julie Lyke, deputy recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife. “Not all of them make it.”

The ferrets with yellowish-brown fur grow about two feet long and live about four years. Their success in the wild depends on how well they adapt from being in captivity and on the availability of prairie dogs. Periodic outbreaks of sylvatic plague have wiped out entire prairie dog colonies, some of which are in areas where ferrets have been reintroduced.

At the Espee Ranch, the U.S. Geological Survey is testing a new vaccine in the form of peanut butter-flavored bait. Prairie dogs once lived on 20,000 acres of the ranch but a 2010 outbreak of the plague reduced the prairie dog’s presence to 3,000 acres before expanding to its current 5,000 acres, Jennifer Cordova of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Field trials of the vaccine began in 2012 at selected sites in seven states, and it will be a few years before scientists know whether it works, said Tonie Rocke, a USGS research scientist.

Each of the ferrets released Wednesday has a microchip that allows wildlife officials to track them. Another population, which was the first reintroduced to Arizona in the Aubrey Valley near Seligman, now is considered sustainable with more than 100 breeding adults.

The overall population must top 3,000 breeding adults for at least three years, meeting certain objectives in its historic range, before the ferrets could be removed from the endangered species list, said John Nystedt, a Fish and Wildlife biologist. The ferrets once were found across a range that stretched from Texas to the Canadian border.

Many farmers and ranchers regard the ferrets’ primary diet - prairie dogs - as a nuisance because they strip grass from grazing lands for food and to keep a better eye on predators. Bill Cordasco, president of Babbitt Ranches, said the company welcomed the ferrets as an opportunity to promote conservation not only of the endangered mammals but of the prairie dogs in testing the vaccine.

He said the company had no plans to develop the portion of the cattle ranch on which the ferrets were released. The agreement with wildlife officials allows private landowners to change their minds about hosting an endangered species after a given time, he said. The animals then would be removed.

“It allows you to really feel open about supporting this,” Cordasco said.

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