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Ferrets finding a home at Rosebud

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ROSEBUD, S.D. - Cited as one of the best areas in the country for the re-introduction of the black-footed ferret, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe is planning on releasing these members of the weasel family into the wild this winter.

In conjunction with the tribal Game, Fish and Parks Department (GFP), 12 to 20 ferrets will be introduced into an area of 10,000 acres (about 16 square miles). One of the reasons this land is considered prime habitat for this species of ferret, the most endangered mammal of North America, is the abundance of prairie dogs, the predominant source of food for this nocturnal predator. Additionally the thousands of underground dens burrowed by the prairie dogs along these flat, low grasslands, called "dog towns", become the new shelter of the ferrets after a successful night raid.

Following years of evidence supporting the belief these ferrets were extinct because of disease and diminishing habitat, a population was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. Through successful breeding, there are presently 225 ferrets cared for by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that can be released.

According to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's Prairie Management Plan, there are spiritual benefits associated with Lakota cultural beliefs upon the return of this "cunning, elusive hunter." The restoration of balance along the food chain will attempt to keep the numbers of prairie dogs in check thereby producing a harmony within the environment.

Directing the black-footed ferret project is Gregory Jackson, a biological technician with GFP. He said prairie dogs have become so prolific they are detrimental to cattle raisers.

"The ferret lives off prairie dogs and there are so many prairie dogs, they're taking away (land) from the ranchers," Jackson said about these three-pound herbivores. (Prairie dogs are approximately twice the size of common gophers.)

Prairie dogs eat plants to less than two inches high, which is shorter than most livestock will graze, in order to maintain a habitat that allows them maximum visibility. Further, these animals will eat year-round in one area putting pressure on the grasses whereas cattle are generally rotated.

Both shooting and poisoning the prairie dogs have limited effect. So, ferrets become a natural way to assist ranchers.

"It's a good project because it helps the ecosystem by bringing back an endangered species," Jackson stated.

Jackson acknowledged that when the term "endangered species" is mentioned, frequently farmers and those who work off the land tend to become defensive because of the potential restrictions associated with the protection of animals. However, Jackson pointed out the black-footed ferrets are classified as a "nonessential experimental population" which means there is flexibility in the management of these animals and the prairie dogs on private lands within the experimental population area. Basically, the ferrets can't be killed deliberately but aren't so inviolate (as say the bald eagle) that if something should happen to the ferret or its habitat accidentally, penalties won't be imposed.

"The goal is to get so many on these prairie dog towns so they can support themselves and be left alone," said Jackson.

To monitor the success rate of the ferrets, they will be limited to a particular area which means prairie dogs will also have to be allowed to flourish in such designated zones. The expansion of prairie dog colonies will likely mean some ranching opportunities will be lost but Jackson said compensation will be provided at about $10 per acre. Further, grazing won't be restricted.

As the Rosebud Sioux prepare to introduce the ferrets, another tribe in the state already has these animals on its land. The Cheyenne River Sioux, located 150 miles north, have had ferrets for the past three years on 13,000 acres (about 20 square miles).

Michael Claymore, the endangered species coordinator for the tribe for the past eight years, warned that payments offered to the Rosebud Sioux as compensation to the tribe and ranchers aren't as lucrative as they appear. Nor are they so readily available.

For three years the Cheyenne has been the only entity within an 11-state radius to voluntarily give up land for the required proliferation of prairie dog colonies for the re-introduction of the black-footed ferret. However, as negotiations have stalled between the tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife (which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]), the Cheyenne have struggled to obtain money from Washington leading Claymore to state how the tribe is losing money for creating these "dog towns."

"They don't have the money to pay for the acreage and that's the downfall," Claymore said. "For the last two years we've received the money but it's been six to seven months late, so the tribe has been required to carry us."

Claymore is also critical of the $10 per acre being offered at Rosebud. Generally when compensation occurs under the Conservation Reserve Program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $35 an acre is the accepted norm based on fair market values. While Claymore stated this might be another example of the federal government offering less money to Indians, should Rosebud accept Claymore believes this would lower the bargaining leverage of the Cheyenne Sioux.

Even if continued grazing is allowed the reason compensation is required, Claymore stated, is when land is converted into prairie dog colonies there is a loss of haying activity that causes ranchers to seek other more costly alternatives to feeding their animals in the winter.

"It's a much larger problem than what's happening here on tribal lands and that's why the EPA is in trouble. You can't just take somebody's land without reimbursing them one way or another," Claymore said.

The re-introduction of the black-footed ferret in Rosebud is only one of several steps the tribal GFP is implementing for beautifying the land in a $9.1 million project budgeted through 2007. By emphasizing range improvements, there will be better water development along with more trees and cross fences added in order to rotate cattle and reduce pressure on the pastures. Permitting the grasses to grow (in non-prairie dog colonies) will also reduce soil erosion and provide for a healthier prairie ecosystem, Jackson mentioned.

"I want to see this area as beautiful and as much improved as possible and this program can do that," said Jackson, a non-tribal member who has lived in the Rosebud area all his life.