Bringing Endangered Ferrets Back to their Historic Habitat

Seabiscuit and Louise have an important role at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Arsenal) -- and they are up for the challenge. Stationed close to the park's visitor center, these two are the "ambassador" black-footed ferrets of the Arsenal and afford all of the park's visitors a rare and up-close look at one of North America's most endangered mammals.

Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but due to loss of habitat and prey, they were brought to the brink of extinction. In fact, in 1986, only 18 ferrets remained in the wild. Thankfully, today these imperiled critters are making a comeback. Collaborative efforts among state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, Native American tribes, and private landowners have helped restore nearly 500 black-footed ferrets in the wild.

Recently, the Arsenal, one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the county, was selected as the newest reintroduction site for the endangered ferrets. With numerous prairie dog colonies (the ferret's main food source), a healthy expanse of shortgrass prairie, and other plains wildlife such as bison, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, and eagles, this urban oasis is an ideal location for restoring these predators to their native habitat.

On October 5th, 30 ferrets bred at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, just north of Fort Collins, were released onto 1,300 acres of prairie dog colonies in the northeast section of the Arsenal. It is an often difficult transition that ferrets make from being captive animals to finding their way in the wild. It involves catching prey, avoiding predators, and learning a new landscape -- all skills that require the energy of youth and quick reflexes that even the best trained ferrets sometimes fail to master. Because of their advanced age, Seabiscuit and Louise will remain near the visitor center, continuing to act as the "face" of their wild kin, and educating visitors of all ages about the important role these animals play in the grassland ecosystem.

The black-footed ferret's recovery is a remarkable story. As one of the original animals placed on the endangered species list in 1967, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a captive breeding program to prevent this native species from going extinct when its population in the wild plummeted to 18 individuals. Because the ferret was federally protected, funding and other resources were available to help establish six captive breeding facilities across the United States, including two in Colorado. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), our nation's cornerstone and most popular conservation law, was essential in saving the black-footed ferret from the brink of extinction.

But while the ESA has provided us with countless conservation success stories like the one above, today some in Congress are trying to dismantle this bedrock conservation law, piece by piece. Too often the ESA is wrongly blamed by its foes for all sorts of economic woes. Unfortunately, these groups today have too many willing allies in Congress to do their bidding. In fact, since January 2015, Congress has been flooded with more than 80 bills, amendments, and riders, including numerous provisions in the funding bills for the Department of the Interior and other agencies, designed to weaken the ESA or remove protections for specific listed species.

Congressional efforts to dismantle the ESA are in stark contrast to Coloradans' attitudes regarding endangered species protection. A recent poll conducted by Tulchin Research shows strong a majority of Colorado residents support the ESA and believe decisions about which imperiled species should or should not be protected under the law should be made by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, not by members of Congress. Specifically, 80 percent of likely 2016 Colorado voters support the ESA and 87 percent believe that decisions about federal protections for specific species should be made by biologists.

These poll results should send a strong message to Colorado's elected officials -- broad-based support for the ESA extends across the political spectrum and Coloradans want endangered species conservation decisions left to the scientists, not politicians.

Even as we celebrate the return of the black-footed ferret to the Arsenal, the law that made it possible to save the ferret from extinction and has been the source of many similar conservation success stories, the Endangered Species Act, is under growing attacks. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and take on these special interests, so that the Seabiscuits and Louises of the animal world stand a fighting chance.