Rare Black-Footed Ferret Babies

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. In the second of a two-part series written by ASC volunteers with the Landmark program on the American Prairie Reserve, we learn about reintroduction of the endangered black-footed ferret.

By Christin Jones

The excitement in the car was palpable. It was after 2:00 a.m. and we were quickly making our way to a prairie dog colony where a rare black-footed ferret had been spotted. When we arrived, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Randy Matchett was waiting with his vehicle-mounted spotlight trained on a burrow 25 yards away.

Landmark crew members Jonah Gula and Sofia Haggberg wait, cameras at the ready, for a ferret to appear from its burrow (Photo by Christin M. Jones).
Landmark crew members Jonah Gula and Sofia Haggberg wait at a ferret’s burrow. (Photo by Christin M. Jones)

Three other Landmark crew members and I were volunteering our much-prized sleeping hours to help Matchett’s team of scientists and technicians search for these elusive nocturnal animals over an area of 8–10 square miles on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to the American Prairie Reserve.

USFWS wildlife biologist Randy Matchett is rarely seen without his cowboy hat. (Photo by Christin M Jones)

Matchett has spent the last 25 years working to bring the black-footed ferret back from the brink of extinction.

My first impression of Matchett was that of a reserved man—quiet, but quick to smile, and rarely seen without his cowboy hat. He earned both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in wildlife biology from the University of Montana, and in 1987, began working on the CMR on projects including prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.

Black-footed ferrets have been classified as endangered in the U.S. since 1967, and it has taken decades of perseverance to bring them to their current numbers: about 1,000 individuals in the wild, as of fall 2010.

As we slowly walked toward the illuminated burrow, I tensed in anticipation. After several minutes of silence, a female ferret popped her head out of the prairie dog burrow she had commandeered, but a camera shutter’s click sent her scurrying back into safety.

Matchett placed an electronic reader around the opening of the burrow, a ring-shaped device capable of detecting a transponder chip embedded under the skin of a ferret. When she re-emerged, the reading did not detect a chip. Everyone smiled.

The lack of a chip meant that she was likely born in the wild this past spring, bringing the total population count in the area up to five known individuals. In the fight against extinction, every individual counts.

A ferret kit likely born in the wild this spring. (Photo by Christin M Jones)

Although this was not part of our regular wildlife data collection duties, it was one of many connections made through Landmark, and one of many exciting nights I’ve had while living here.

The next day as I mapped a prairie dog colony, GPS in hand, I had a better understanding of the importance of this ecosystem and the animals that call it home. I am thankful there are places like the American Prairie Reserve and the CMR where the public can enjoy this beauty.

Christin Jones grew up in a small agricultural town in northeastern Ohio and graduated from the College of Wooster with a B.S. in archaeology. Following a summer working in Glacier National Park, she worked at the Jane Goodall Institute, helping Dr. Goodall with her book
Hope for Animals and Their World.

Landmark is ASC’s groundbreaking project to provide “boots on the ground” support for the American Prairie Reserve management team. Find more about this and other ASC projects on our website, on the ASC Field Notes blog, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Team

Changing Planet

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Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow. Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at adventurescientists.org/field-notes. Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.