Arizona volunteers aid annual count of endangered ferret

[Source: Brandon Loomis, The Arizona Republic] – SELIGMAN — At 2 in the morning, you start seeing things in the path of the spotlight.Ed the Fed, a recaptured black-footed ferret, was identified from the chip placed in him during last years spotlighting event.  Ferrets captured for the first time are anesthetized, examined, vaccinated and implanted with a chip.  Recaptured ferrets are vaccinated.

A shrub that appears to move. A pair of red eyes that quicken the pulse until you realize they belong to a common rabbit. Anything, it seems, but the green glow from the eyes of one of the world’s rarest mammals.

Then, “Ferret!” someone in the truck shouts. Brakes lock and tires slide on the dirt road.

You can’t make out its shape in the distance, but the telltale green reflection from a black-footed ferret’s eyes give it away. And, in this case, rather than freezing or running, the weasel bobs playfully as it inspects the intruders.

Every spring, the Arizona Game and Fish Department seeks the nocturnal predators with an army of spotlighting volunteers who count and vaccinate the endangered black-footed ferret, the only American species, which was once on the brink of extinction.

The collapse of prairie-dog towns from poison and the plow nearly wiped out ferrets in the past century. But, 17 years ago, they were transplanted from captivity into prairie-dog towns throughout the West because they dine almost exclusively on the destructive rodents. Now, under protections for both predator and prey, ferrets are thriving here like nowhere else.

Searchers are never skunked in scrubby Aubrey Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Seligman. March 29, the second of six outings planned for this year, was no exception.

“We hit new records every year, so it’s quite exciting,” wildlife technician and veteran spotlighter Heather Heimann told volunteers before the hunt. Then, she told them that any fingers that they’d like to keep should be kept away from trapped ferrets and to expect the animals to deploy some smelly defenses.

“I call it endangered-species pee,” Heimann said. “A bonus.”

Arizona’s ferret-recovery zone, in the northwestern part of the state, has proved a pleasant surprise to federal wildlife managers. It is one of just a few colonies where the ferrets are self-sustaining.

The search leads to captures so that the animals can be counted and vaccinated against canine distemper. If one of these silky, black-masked ferrets is trapped for the first time, an electronic ID chip is inserted in the nape of its neck. The animal is gassed with a sedative, first while inside a capture tube and then through a mask.

Volunteers come from all over Arizona and beyond, and there’s always someone who went to great pains to be there. This time it was Neil Edwards of Swansea, Wales. He and his wife re-arranged their Grand Canyon vacation to co-incide with the spring trapping.

“I’m a keen bird-watcher in the U.K.,” he said, “but also animals. Whenever I go on holiday, I study up on animals in the area.”

At 2 a.m. last Saturday, he got a special thrill when he walked toward a 2-foot-long ferret and watched it disappear down a burrow. About 60 people helped search dirt roads for the animals that night, and he was in a group of seven.

They approached and placed a wire-cage trap with spring-loaded door into the hole. They covered it with a burlap sack to block light, presenting the ferret with the illusion that the exit was now a few feet higher.

Then, they placed Big Gulp cups over other potentially connected holes, leaving the ferret only one way out. They marked the spot on a global-positioning system and left, planning to return within an hour to ensure that their quarry wouldn’t spend too much time exposed to the cold.

“I just think it’s brilliant,” Edwards said of Arizona’s recovery efforts. “What a success story.”

Volunteers in each of the past couple of years have found more than 100 ferrets in Aubrey Valley. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 500 ferrets in 20 reintroduction sites from northern Mexico to the Dakotas.

In three nights, volunteers captured 28 ferrets. That would be low by recent standards if it held as the yearly count, but Game and Fish expects a second round of trapping this month will greatly increase the total.

“Last year, we were probably the most successful site in the country,” said Jennifer Cordova, Arizona Game and Fish’s ferret-program supervisor. “Others, unfortunately, plagued out.”

She referred to the same black-death plague that terrorized Europe in the 14th century. Antibiotics and other defenses minimize the threat to people, though rare deaths still occur.

But the insect-borne disease can wipe out ferrets as well as the prairie dogs they eat. The illness is relatively new to North America, having first arrived in California around 1900. It’s unclear why it hasn’t struck the Aubrey Valley, but it has devastated other recovery areas.

It’s possible to slow plague by dusting animal burrows with flea killer, but that’s expensive and time-consuming. Plague vaccines can’t be administered without a veterinarian present, which is also expensive. The state’s program, funded through the federal government and a match with Lottery proceeds in the Heritage Fund, is $200,000.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, massive swaths of ferret habitats in the western Great Plains were plowed under, and ranchers who worried about competition for grass poisoned many of the prairie dogs that remained.

Ferrets were absent from Arizona for 65 years before being reintroduced in 1996. They were thought to be extinct until a colony was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyo., in 1981.

Disease killed all but 18 animals in the mid-1980s, and the government trapped those for captive breeding. Several zoos, including the Phoenix Zoo, and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service center in northern Colorado help maintain a captive population of 300, some of which were conditioned for release.

The number of captures in Aubrey Valley has steadily increased in recent years, from 60 in 2009 to 96 in 2010, 116 in 2011 and 123 last year.

“I was on the project in ’99,” Cordova said, “and we’d go out spotlighting and maybe find one ferret.”

The government’s goal is to have 3,000 adult ferrets in 12 states, with at least 10 populations exceeding 100, said Pete Gober, ferret-recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sixteen-year-old Texan Molly Campbell traveled from Fort Worth for the roundup. With her headlamp shining onto a caged ferret that she was preparing to return to the wild, she said she came to make a difference and maybe preview a career.

Her uncle Ed Newcomer, a Fish and Wildlife Service special agent from Los Angeles, accompanied her. They ended up catching the same ferret two nights in a row — something one researcher is counting on during these events, to help chart ferret movements.

Volunteers who trap a ferret that has never been tagged and cataloged get to pick the name that biologists will call it each time it’s caught. Campbell and Newcomer named theirs Ed the Fed.

Black-Footed Ferret spotlighting

[Source: Matt Fesko, Arizona Heritage Alliance Vice-President] – Image

I participated in the Fall 2012 Arizona Department of Game and Fish Black Footed Ferret spotlighting event in Aubrey Valley. Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) are one of North America’s most endangered mammals. The primary goal of the Arizona reintroduction effort is to establish a free-ranging, self-sustaining population of black-footed ferrets in the Aubrey Valley Experimental Population Area (AVEPA). I was paired with two volunteers from Northern Arizona University. After a short introductory video and training session at the Game and Fish field house in Seligman, we headed out to Aubrey Valley with our spotlights and traps to trap ferrets from 10 pm until 6 am. It was a rewarding experience to see first hand these amazing creatures in their natural nocturnal habits. The Game and Fish staff and all of the volunteers did a fantastic job.

Below are the results of the outing that I received in a very nice thank you card from the Arizona Department of Game and FIsh BFF Team: “Thank you for your help during the 2012 fall spotlighting event. We really would not be able to get the job done without the invaluable help of so many dedicated volunteers. During the fall event we caught 65 ferrets, of which 57 were unique BFF’s. Fifty-one of these ferrets were brand new and 9 of the ferrets trapped had been caught during the previous events, which we like to see because we get an idea of long term survivability in the population. We had 44% trap success this event. Over the 5 nights we had a total of 144 volunteers, of which 103 were brand new. We broke our previous record of 22 ferrets caught in one night, with 23 captured on the first night! With a spring count of 53 individuals and a fall count of 57 individuals we have a minimum population of 110 ferrets; falling just short of last year’s population count of 116. Thank you again for your help and we hope to see you at another event!”

 

Arizona Game and Fish announces black-footed ferret spotlighting results

A record number of volunteers assisted in the effort to document the population of endangered black-footed ferrets in Aubrey Valley, just west of Seligman. The Arizona Game and Fish Department partnered with 144 volunteers for the fall spotlighting effort from Sept. 27-Oct. 1 to count the elusive predators. Spotlighting from dusk-to-dawn is the method used to capture the animals and document the population.

The 57 individuals captured during the event brought the 2012 total to 110, just short of the record 116 counted in 2011. The effort did set a one-night record when 23 individual ferrets were trapped, breaking the previous mark of 22. The numbers remain good in Aubrey Valley considering the black-footed ferret once numbered just 18 in the world when captive breeding efforts began in 1985.

“The spring and fall spotlighting efforts were a bit earlier than we would like,” said Jennifer Cordova, a biologist with the recovery effort. “But, that’s the way it worked this year. We try and hold these efforts when predatory animals such as the black-footed ferret are most active; during a full moon. “We may do a small spotlighting effort in December because we don’t believe the slightly lower count is indicative of how the population is doing.”

Cordova credits the continued support of the public and the Heritage Fund in the recovery of the black-footed ferret. The Heritage Fund comes from a portion of Arizona Lottery ticket sales and provides the financial means for Game and Fish to be the lead agency with no cost to Arizona taxpayers. “The record number of volunteers is a testament to the interest in wildlife conservation efforts,” Cordova stated. “We would not be where we are today without their support.”

The numbers have Arizona meeting the original goals established for the recovery site, which boasts a self-sustaining population. “There is reason for optimism for the species, but there’s a long way to go,” Cordova said. “Continued support from the public will play a pivotal role. Volunteers are crucial in documentation of population trends throughout Aubrey Valley.”

The black-footed ferret crew will continue spotlighting efforts in the spring of 2013. For anyone interested in obtaining additional information, write to azferret@azgfd.gov or call (928) 422-0155. To receive current information from the Game and Fish Region 3 office in Kingman, search for Azgfd Kingman on Facebook.

Future for Arizona’s endangered black-footed ferrets shines thanks to recovery efforts

The future for Arizona’s endangered black-footed ferrets looks promising with two new exciting developments: the opening of a new breeding facility for the species at the Phoenix Zoo and the best-ever population survey results.

Fourteen years after they were first reintroduced to the state, black-footed ferret surveys conducted this fall by the Arizona Game and Fish Department show a record 96 animals in the Aubrey Valley population located outside of Seligman, Ariz. Because not all ferrets were captured and included in the fall survey count, the number of animals identified during the survey is a minimum population estimate, and the actual population could be larger.

Not only is the number of ferrets identified a record high for Arizona’s population, but it also exceeds the state’s objective that needs to be met in order for the species to be “downlisted” from endangered to threatened on the endangered species list. “Downlisting” means that the species has recovered to a point where its classification on the Endangered Species List has improved. All states with black-footed ferret populations are given state-specific recovery guidelines that lead to a larger national recovery effort. The national recovery guidelines must be met before “downlisting” the species can be considered.

“It’s a tremendous milestone for Arizona to surpass one of the draft guidelines for recovering black-footed ferrets and do its part to contribute to the larger national conservation effort,” says Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “The ultimate measure of success for any endangered species recovery program is when our efforts are so successful that a species can be removed from the endangered species list. The growth of Arizona’s wild black-footed ferret population moves us closer to that ultimate goal, and with support from the Phoenix Zoo and the Heritage Fund, we will continue to work towards a full recovery for the species.”

Aiding the recovery of the species is the opening of the new Black-Footed Ferret Breeding Center at the Phoenix Zoo. With help from a generous donation from the Arthur L. “Bud” and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation, this new facility will enable the Phoenix Zoo to continue their successful breeding program.

The Phoenix Zoo has been an active participant in the conservation and reintroduction of black-footed ferrets since the opening of their first breeding facility in 1992. As one of only six facilities in the world that participate in the species’ breeding program, the Phoenix Zoo has produced nearly 400 ferrets, 85 of which have been released in the Aubrey Valley.

In 2008, the zoo’s black-footed ferret breeding program went on hiatus, as the ferret breeding facility was located in the footprint of the orangutan exhibit expansion. The zoo was concerned about the impact their absence would have on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Black-footed Ferret Species Survival Plan® and the federal recovery program.

“We worked extremely hard across zoo departments to make plans and raise funds for a new breeding center,” says Ruth Allard, executive vice president of conservation and visitor experiences for the Phoenix Zoo. “Just over two years later now, we were joined today by representatives from state and federal wildlife agencies in dedicating the new black-footed ferret breeding center. We trust that our new ferrets will settle in and breed well in this beautiful new building dedicated to the preservation of their species in the wilds of North America.”

The new building is located just behind the Johnson Foundation Conservation Center.

In addition to the zoo’s group of nine ferrets retired from the breeding program, an additional 21 black-footed ferrets have been welcomed to the zoo’s collection. Seven males and 14 females traveled from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colo. All of the new males and eight of the females make up the zoo’s breeding population, while six of the new females have joined our existing group of nine ferrets retired from the breeding program.  The “retirees” cannot be released to the wild, usually for health reasons, so they will live out their remaining years in the zoo’s care.

“Endangered species recovery works. It’s a long haul up a slippery slope, but the Phoenix Zoo’s breeding program and Arizona Game and Fish’s steadfast reintroduction and monitoring efforts provide the traction needed to restore viable ferret populations. The offspring of these animals are thriving where the species once was locally extinct,” says Pete Gober, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s black-footed ferret recovery coordinator.

The draft recovery plan for black-footed ferrets suggests that 74 animals are needed in the wild in Arizona to change the species’ classification from endangered to threatened. The draft plan is due out soon for public comment. The plan also suggests that Arizona needs 148 animals living in the wild as part of the national recovery effort in order for the species to be removed entirely from the Endangered Species List.

Game and Fish’s black-footed ferret program is supported by the Heritage Fund, a voter-passed initiative that provides funding for wildlife conservation through Arizona Lottery revenue.

Biologists feared the black-footed ferret was extinct in the late 1970s, but then discovered approximately 120 of the animals in Wyoming in the mid-1980s. In 1985, after two disease outbreaks had killed nearly all of the remaining ferrets, the last 18 individuals were captured to start a breeding program. The descendants of these 18 ferrets have now been introduced into 19 reintroduction sites in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, including Aubrey Valley. Before reintroduction, the last black-footed ferret in Arizona was found in 1931 in an area between Williams and Flagstaff.

Black-footed ferrets are related to weasels. While they resemble domestic pet ferrets, black-footed ferrets are a different species and are the only ferret native to North America. They can grow to be up to 2 feet long and can weigh up to 2 ½ pounds. One ferret can give birth to three to five kits each year.

The Arizona black-footed ferret reintroduction program is a joint effort of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Phoenix Zoo, Hualapai Nation, Navajo Nation, Arizona State Land Department and the Cholla Cattle Company.