Great Bend zoo staff headed to western Kansas in September for the Fall 2010 Ferret survey. Marge Bowen, curator at the Brit Spaugh Zoo, and zookeeper Trish McKinley traveled to Logan County, where conservationists have reintroduced the black-footed ferret, bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.
The black-footed ferret differs from tame ferrets sold at pet stores, which are mostly of European descent, McKinley said. They are brown but have black feet and a black mask over the eyes. "We call them ninja ferrets. They are cute little buggers."
"They are extinct in the wild," Bowen said. Ferrets prey on prairie dogs, but the poisons used to eradicate prairie dogs wiped out ferrets, too. Then, in 2007, ranchers Larry Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release ferrets on their land as part of a program to increase their population. The ranchers had already gone to court to challenge a state law that had been on the books since 1901, giving the county commission the authority to send prairie dog exterminators onto the land.
Ferrets released onto the 10,000-acre ranch were tagged with microchips. Now conservationists take a ferret survey twice a year. Starting after sundown on a starry September evening, they worked through the night. "We drove around in the night with a spotlight, and looked for the reflection in their eyes," Bowen said, explaining ferrets sleep in prairie dog holes during the day.
McKinley’s group caught four ferrets, setting traps wherever they saw reflected eyes. They saw plenty of other nocturnal animals as well: skunks, foxes, burrowing owls, jackrabbits, snakes and peregrine falcons, and even a bobcat. The ferrets were taken to an on-site veterinarian, who knocked them out with anesthesia before doing blood work and checking for a microchip.
"Out of the four that we caught, only one had been microchipped previously," McKinley said. "So that’s a good thing; they are thriving and breeding."
Bowen said conservation work is required to achieve accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — something the Great Bend zoo is striving to attain.
Brit Spaugh Zoo has a couple of non-native ferrets, and is on a waiting list for black-footed ferrets.
Zoo Director Scot Gregory said he has applied for grants that would fund another conservation project: a garden designed for endangered butterflies, hummingbirds and Virginia bees. Grant applications were submitted to the Golden Belt Community Foundation and to Walmart’s philanthropic foundation.