It seems like every time we turn around, there’s another animal on the endangered species list. We don’t hear too often about species that have become extinct in our lifetimes, because of the hard work that’s being done and attention that is paid to our animal friends from environmental groups and the national and state wildlife divisions.
But the case of the black-footed ferret is unique – the species was thought to be extinct in the late 1950s, until a small population (a group of ferrets is called a “business” – isn’t that cool?) was discovered in South Dakota in 1964. When that “business” of ferrets began to decline, wildlife officials captured some of the ferrets to save the species. However, the last of those died in captivity in 1974, and it was thought the species was officially extinct.
Then came a fateful day – September 26, 1981. I talked to a friend of mine, Dennie Hammer, who is now with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. On that day, Dennie was employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the crew leader for a team searching for endangered species that might have habitats on land that was being considered for coal leasing. He checked in with his office and was told that John Hogg, a rancher just outside Meeteetse, Wyoming, had found a dead animal that his dog “Shep” had brought home. When he couldn’t figure out what it was, he brought it to a local taxidermist who identified the animal as a black footed ferret. The taxidermist called wildlife officials, and Dennie and another Fish and Wildlife guy, Steve Martin, were sent to try to find more of the ferrets.
According to Dennie, they were conducting a spotlight search in the Meeteetse area on the Pitchfork Ranch, in the early morning of October 29th, 1981. At 6:20 a.m., they spotted a black footed ferret scurrying across the road before it dove into a prairie dog burrow. They set traps for the animal, which they captured that evening. (They nicknamed the young male ferret 620, since that was the time they first spotted him.) Dennie and Steve took “620” to veterinarian Bill Gould in Meeteetse, collared him and sent him back into the wild. The little guy led them right to the rest of his clan, and the rest is history.
Since then, the black footed ferret has survived, both in captivity and in re-population efforts in eight states and in Mexico. Thanks to the work of the government wildlife officials and private organizations whose mission is to keep the species around for a long time, the black footed ferret, while still an endangered species, is no longer on the brink of extinction.
And that’s the reason for the big shindig in Meeteetse on September 24th through the 26th – the 30th anniversary of the day the ferrets were re-discovered. With events ranging from school programs to tours of the discovery location to the dedication of a black footed ferret display at the Meeteetse Museum, the fuzzy critters are being celebrated in grand Wyoming style. There will be a street dance and a barbecue at the Oasis Motel on Friday night; the Meeteetse School will play host to demonstrations and panel discussions Friday and Saturday; there will be a drawing on Monday the 26th for a commemorative bronze sculpture of a ferret; and the Governor has even signed a proclamation declaring September 26th as Black Footed Ferret Day in Wyoming. And if you’ve never seen an actual black footed ferret, there will be live ones there in Meeteetse that weekend on display! That in itself is a reason to head to Meeteetse next weekend.
And all this over a furry weasel-looking creature that somebody’s dog brought home… amazing how life works, isn’t it? See ya in Meeteetse September 24th, 25th and 26th!
Until next time, I’ll be lovin’ life in Buffalo Bill’s Country!