The most endangered species in North America, Feature by student contributor Jessica Meeker

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Rocky Mountain College’s students were given the opportunity to help spotlight and capture the most endangered mammal species in North America: the black-footed ferret.

Working on a wildlife ecology class, RMC students, led by Professor Kayhan Ostovar, went to the American Prairie Reserve (APR) in Eastern Montana, to help take down fences as well as spotlight black-footed ferrets.

The American Prairie Reserve is a non-profit organization. They are working with the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge to rebuild the grasslands of the state by protecting and restoring native flora and fauna to parts of Montana.

“Seventeen percent of donations are from Montanans. The rest comes from all 50 states as well as 13 different countries,” said reserve supervisor Damien Austin.

The organization’s main goal is to create one of the largest reserves in the United States. They are working to purchase well over one million acres of land to create this natural paradise for both animals and humans alike. If they succeed, the American Prairie Reserve will be larger than Yellowstone National Park.

Print_Copy_Issue_2-024Currently, the American Prairie Reserve is working on removing all fencing from new property that they have purchased or leased for the purpose of restoring free-roaming bison herds. One important issue the APR mentioned how the native grasslands need to be protected in the United States as well as all over the world. There are protections for the scenic, rugged mountains, but almost none for the vast Great Plains. Most of the plains have been used for agriculture and grazing cattle, but the American Prairie Reserve wants to change that.

There are other species besides the bison that the reserve wants to protect. In the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, researchers are working with a group of biologists and volunteers to reintroduce the black-footed ferrets to healthy prairie dog towns.

Jessica Alexander, a contract biologist, talked about why the prairie dog is important for the black-footed ferret.

“The small rodent is the main food source for the black-footed ferret as well as 150 other species that depend of them for survival,” Alexander said.

Without the prairie dog the black-footed ferret would have been confirmed an extinct species. In truth, the prairie dog is considered a “keystone species.” Many predators such as hawks, eagles, black-footed ferrets, and coyotes depend on the prairie dog for food. The prairie dog also creates healthier soil where a large variety of plant species can grow for the grazers. Cows and horses have been known to graze near prairie dog towns.

One source of conflict for the APR is ranchers. When you travel through the reserve there are signs that read “Don’t Buffalo Me, Stop Federal Land-grabbing.” Many of the ranchers who border the reserve have these signs to protest against the development and reintroduction of bison as well as the protection of prairie dogs.

Education is a primary method for combating adverse views like those of the ranchers. This is why RMC students are there; to learn about the black-footed ferret, the bison, and why both are important to the Great Plains.

To teach the students about the ferrets, biologists wanted to give them the opportunity to see the ferrets close up. On Sept. 2 at 11 p.m., the biologists and students mounted spotlights onto six different vehicles and began the search for the black-footed ferret.

The black-footed ferret is a species with a distinct eye reflection. When a spotlight hits their eyes it will reflect a bright emerald color back. Once a ferret is confirmed, a trap will be set in hopes of catching the ferret so that it can be vaccinated for the bubonic plague and canine distemper, which is a contagious viral illness with no know cure.

All of the black-footed ferrets alive today are descendants from the last few ferrets that were saved from extinction over 30 years ago. They were thought to be extinct until a farmer’s dog found a dead one and brought it back to his master.  Biologists flocked to the farmer’s land in hopes of saving the species. Saldly, they were only able to save a few before the rest died of bubonic plague.  

The Rocky students who are helping the biologists are getting to see the most endangered species in America. By 6 a.m. the next day, the group had successfully captured and vaccinated six ferrets. The biologists will continue to capture ferrets over the next period, until they have all the ferrets living in the prairie dog colony vaccinated. For now they will remain on the International Union For Conservation of Nature’s Red List as an endangered species.

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