Prairie Park Nature Center aids in national efforts to save endangered black-footed ferret

Gyrfalcon, a black-footed ferret comes out of his hole for a brief moment on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 at Prairie Park Nature Center, 2730 Harper Street. Prairie Park staff members have partnered with scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in efforts to repopulate the black-footed ferret in Kansas.

With his playful personality and bandit-like facial markings, Gyr (pronounced like “gear”) the ferret is one of the best-loved critters at the Prairie Park Nature Center.

He’s adorable, but he’s also tough, a survivor. Once thought to be extinct, black-footed ferrets like Gyr are making a modest comeback on the prairie they once freely roamed — thanks, in part, to the work of Prairie Park staff and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.

For ten years, the nature center, along with volunteers from various institutions across the state, has taken part in annual surveying of the black-footed ferret recovery site in Logan County. Marty Birrell, nature interpretive supervisor at Prairie Park, feels optimistic after this month’s trip to the 1,100-acre tract in western Kansas, where she and her colleagues helped capture, tag and vaccinate wild-born ferrets.

“We located and trapped a number of ferrets the very first night,” Birrell said. “It’s not unusual to go a few nights without seeing anything because these guys, they’re only above ground about 5 percent of the day.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to release data from this month’s survey, but Birrell said her team located at least 20 ferrets during her time on the site. That’s substantial because, while each of the country’s approximate 20 sites are meant to support populations of 100, there are only about 300 black-footed ferrets left in the U.S., according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Gyrfalcon, a black-footed ferret comes out of his hole for a brief moment on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 at Prairie Park Nature Center, 2730 Harper Street. Prairie Park staff members have partnered with scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in efforts to repopulate the black-footed ferret in Kansas.

“Black-footed ferrets are just about North America’s most endangered animal,” Birrell said, right up there with wolverines and red wolves.

The once-plentiful species was thought be extinct until 1981, when a small cluster of ferrets was discovered on a Wyoming ranch. All black-footed ferrets today descend from that group of about a dozen, Birrell said.

Their “sad” story, she said, is inextricably linked with that of the prairie dogs, the ferrets’ main source of food. The sharp decline in black-footed ferrets is directly connected with extermination of prairie dogs, which have long been considered agricultural pests in the American West.

“We’ve lost about 98 percent of the historical prairie dog habitat,” Birrell said.

“The Endangered Species Act was designed to not only protect and recover endangered species but their habitats as well,” she said. “And unfortunately, there’s a sort of historical mindset about prairie dogs in the West that they’re a varmint species and that they don’t deserve to be conserved and protected.”

Plague has also slashed ferret and prairie dog populations dramatically in recent years, though Birrell said no evidence of plague has been detected on the Kansas recovery site. Scientists are in their second year of a three-year study in Logan County collecting data on predator-prey relationships and the effectiveness of the recently developed plague vaccine.

Droughts over the last several years reduced populations by 30 to 40 percent, Birrell said, though she’s optimistic about this month’s survey. Volunteers even discovered several untagged babies at the Logan County site, Birrell said. Meanwhile, the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center continues to breed ferrets and distribute them among recovery sites.

A note to curious readers: You won’t see the creatures anywhere near Lawrence — not roaming freely, anyway. The Prairie Park Nature Center is one of only 21 facilities in the U.S. to house a live black-footed ferret, on loan from the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center.

That’s Gyr, short for Gyrfalcon. The ferret is the star of Prairie Park’s short-grass prairie display and many a children’s educational program at the nature center. He wasn’t very sociable with the female ferrets biologists attempted to breed him with, but he is good with kids, Birrell said.

“He’s adorable and really friendly,” Birrell said of the 7 1/2-year-old Gyr. Black-footed ferrets in captivity live, on average, 6 to 7 years, but Birrell said she expects Gyr to remain at the nature center for at least a few more years.

“He’s definitely slowing down, but he has been extremely healthy,” Birrell said.

Her motivation in saving the black-footed ferret extends beyond protecting just one species. The ferrets are part of an “incredible biodiversity” stemming from the prairie dog that supports more than 140 species, Birrell said, including mule deer, swift foxes, badgers and owls, among others.

“And besides which, the black-footed ferret is just a highly interesting little animal,” she said. “If we lose it completely, it’s not going to make or break the prairie. If we lose prairie dogs, that will.”