First taste of freedom: 18 captive-born ferrets released in northwest Wyoming

Story and photos by Sarah Beckwith, public affairs specialist, Wind River/Bighorn Basin District

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wyoming Cody Field Office had the unique honor of participating in a release of endangered, captive-born black-footed ferrets to private and public land this fall in northwest Wyoming.

A black-footed ferret peeks out of its cage that is resting on the grass.
A captive-born black-footed ferret peeks out of its cage.
A black-footed ferret sticks its head out of his home, which is a hole in the ground.
This black-footed ferret surfaced from its new home to check out the small group of people still watching.

The black-footed ferret was once thought to be extinct but was rediscovered in 1981 near the tiny Wyoming town of Meeteetse, when a ranch dog brought a dead ferret back to its owners. A small population of 18 surviving ferrets was discovered and placed in a captive breeding program which has successfully produced ferrets that are now reintroduced to the wild.

Since the first reintroduction in 2016, the BLM and its many partners— private landowners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, to name a few—have worked toward the recovery of black-footed ferrets in both Meeteetse and the Shirley Basin of Wyoming.

A group of four people stand in a field with Cody Field Manager Cade Powell holding a ferret in a cage.
BLM Cody Wildlife Biologist Abel Guevara (second from right) and Cody Field Manager Cade Powell (far right) chat with representatives from the Meeteetse Museum and Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Cody Field Manager Cade Powell kneels down in the grass holding a cage with the ferret inside.
Cody Field Manager Cade Powell and a black-footed ferret pause for a photo before the ferret is coaxed out of its cage.

Sylvatic plague management is a major component of the future success of these weasel-like animals. Plague, a disease carried by fleas, is among the top killers of prairie dogs. Ferrets feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs. BLM Wyoming and its partners provide resources and make significant contributions to plague management. Prairie dog burrows are dusted with insecticide to kill plague-carrying fleas and an oral vaccine bait also helps protect prairie dogs against plague.

Beyond plague management, partners trap, count and assess the health of the ferrets near Meeteetse. Any captured wild-born ferrets are checked for overall body condition and tagged to identify them if they are caught again. The ferrets are then released back to where they were trapped.

During a 2018 trap and release operation, BLM Cody Wildlife Biologist Abel Guevara caught a wild-born female and her kit—the first time successful reproduction of a wild-born ferret was ever documented on BLM-managed land.

“It was so exciting to trap the wild born female and her kit on public lands because the year before when surveys were completed, no ferrets were spotted,” said Guevara. “It demonstrated that the BLM’s environmental analysis, allowing our partners to expand sylvatic plague management efforts on public lands, was working and allowing ferrets to expand their ranges and survive in the wild.”

This fall’s release of captive-born black-footed ferrets took place near the end of a beautiful and calm Wyoming day. Those lucky enough to release a ferret were all somehow tied to the recovery efforts. BLM Cody Field Manager Cade Powell opened the gate of the cage and coaxed the now-wild critter into its new home. A total of 18 ferrets were set free that night—each to its own prairie dog burrow and with a dead prairie dog meal to get it started.

Cody Field Manager Cade Powell kneeling down to drop a prairie dog meal into a hole in the ground, which is the ferret's new home.
Cody Field Manager Cade Powell drops a prairie dog meal into the ferret’s new home.