Feds ignore consequences in bid to save endangered ferret

MACHIAVELLIAN: Logan County landowners assert the federal government is ignoring the unintended consequences of conservation efforts to restore black-footed ferret populations in Western Kansas.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — When Jim Ludolph surveys his acreage in Logan County, all he can do is shake his head.

The land is pockmarked, scarred from fence to fence with prairie dog mounds. The pasture ground has been in Ludolph’s family for more than a century, and he says it has never looked this bad.

“My dad would be rolling in his grave right now if he saw this mess,” Ludolph said.

But the Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs are just a symptom; Ludolph says the problem is the federal government, specifically the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since late 2007, a pair of sites near Ludolph’s land have served as release points for the reintroduction of the endangered black-footed ferret. The small mammal was originally thought to be extinct during the mid-20th century, but the discovery of a ferret colony in Wyoming in the early 1980s jump started recovery efforts.

For Ludolph and other Logan County landowners, saving the black-footed ferret has never been an issue; the unintended consequences are the problem.

That problem, landowners say, is the unimpeded growth and spillover of prairie dog populations onto land adjacent to release sites. The ferrets feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs, making large prairie dog populations vitally important to the ferret’s reintroduction.

Sheila Ellis, Logan County rancher, said they’re such a destructive nuisance that more than a century ago Kansas enacted state law compelling local officials to exterminate prairie dog populations wherever they crop up. Failure to do so can result in a misdemeanor charge and fines of up to $100 per incident.

“Getting rid of all the prairie dogs, to me, would be tantamount to getting rid of all the ship rats in New York City,” Ellis told Kansas Watchdog. “They’re a rodent, and they’re prolific.”

But conservationists won a legal battle blocking Logan County commissioners from going onto the ferret release sites and getting the prairie dog populations under control. As a show of good faith, conservationists proposed the installation of vegetative barriers and fencing around the perimeter of the release sites to stem the inevitable migration of prairie dogs across property lines.

The countermeasures went up around 2010. Four years later, they’ve become something of a joke.

WORKAROUND: A prairie dog hole burrows under the fence constructed to keep the animals out of Jim Ludolph’s land.

Vegetative barriers function, in theory, by capitalizing on the prairie dog’s aversion to tall grass, which obstructs its vision. While it may have been effective to some degree initially, ranchers say several years of severe drought have taken a toll on even the hardiest plant life in the region. The rebar and chicken-wire fencing spanning the perimeter of the release sites is even worse.

“For a few months, while it was well-maintained, I thought it slowed them down a little bit,” said rancher Keith Edwards. “But there are gaps a mile wide.”

“Some of it’s almost totally flat on the ground,” he added.

And don’t forget about the minor detail that, as subterranean mammals, prairie dogs can simply burrow beneath any physical barrier, despite an electrified wire running along the ground level.

While the USFWS is pushing forward on efforts to make the black-footed ferret’s reintroduction in Kansas a success, beleaguered landowners point to the fed’s own population statistics, arguing it’s a futile effort.

Since 2007, federal wildlife experts have released hundreds of ferrets in Logan County. When they returned for the annual spring count in March, they found only six.

The potential success of the black-footed ferret was even called into question by the man leading its revival years before the animal was brought back to Kansas.

“I don’t expect the ferret to ever be recovered to a point where it can be downlisted from endangered to threatened,” Pete Gober, USFWS ferret recovery coordinator, told the New York Times in 1999.

But just two years ago, Gober wrote “(b)lack-footed ferret recovery partners are optimistic that the species could be fully recovered in another decade—something that was unimaginable just 30 years ago.”

Gober was unavailable for comment when contacted by Kansas Watchdog.

Images courtesy the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition

SPREADING: Overhead maps provided by the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition depict the rapid encroachment of prairie dogs from uncontrolled land in the months following extermination efforts on rancher Keith Edwards’ land.

However, complaints of farmers and ranchers go far beyond a perceived waste of public tax dollars. Federal conservation efforts are taking a direct hit on their bottom line and livelihoods.

Ludolph said because of the pervasive prairie dog infestation, he hasn’t been able to plant crops in his fields for the past eight years. When prairie dogs move in, not only do they carve extensive burrows into the earth, but they scar the ground atop the mound and clip grass short in a wide berth around the hole.

“I’m losing a pretty good amount of money,” Ludolph said. “I figure over the last few years I’ve lost close to $300,000.”

But it gets even worse. Prairie dogs have decimated Ludolphs pastures so badly that it has reduced the number of cattle the acreage can viably support. There’s also the cost of field repair, inserting concrete plugs into burrows to keep the ground from collapsing or cattle from breaking their legs.

“I figure it’s going to take half a million (to repair),” he added.

And then there’s the threat of plague.

Yes, plague, as in bubonic, Black Death. The disease decimated black-footed ferret populations in South Dakota after it swept through high concentrations of prairie dogs in the region.

The U.S. Forest Service has already uncovered plague among prairie dog populations in the Cimarron National Grasslands of southwest Kansas, barely an hour away from Logan County. Only days ago, Colorado health officials traced a rare airborne form of the disease back to prairie dogs east of Denver.

“That’s going to happen, there’s just no doubt about it,” Ludolph said. “That’s going to put us all in the danger zone.”

But looking at the picture as a whole, even taking the altruistic ideals of the USFWS into account, some landowners can’t help but feel the federal government is taking a Machiavellian approach to wildlife restoration.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that they’re more concerned about the animals than they are the people,” Edwards said.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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