By Bruce Finley
Thirty black-footed ferrets bolted from cages onto barren ranchland Wednesday, potentially launching a new approach to rescuing endangered species — and introducing a natural predator of prairie dogs.
Although the federal government, led by biologists in Colorado, has bred thousands of black-footed ferrets in captivity, they still do not exist as self-sustaining species in the wild.
Plague has attacked some released ferrets in other states, but the bigger problem has been landowners hesitant to allow an endangered animal on their land fearing liability if anything happens to it.
Colorado law prohibits any state role introducing endangered species without legislative approval. However, the state law was relaxed this year to let ferrets be released on private land under new "safe-harbor" deals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It was the first of these deals that led to Wednesday's release on cattle rancher Gary Walker's land west of Pueblo.
"I'm elated. I've worked for almost two decades trying to get natural predators for prairie dogs back on my ranch," Walker said.
Ferrets' elongated bodies and super-sensitive snouts let them slink through tunnels to underground dens while prairie dogs sleep. They clamp their teeth into the prairie dogs' necks like vampires and squeeze before devouring their prey.
Walker once hired professional sharpshooters to kill hundreds of prairie dogs. More....