American pioneers saw the endless stretches of grassland of the Great Plains as a place to produce grain and beef for a growing country. But one casualty was the native prairie ecosystem and animals that thrived only there.
Some biologists are trying to save the prairies and they've picked a hero to help them: the black-footed ferret. In trying to save this long skinny predator with a raccoon-like mask, the biologists believe they have a chance to right a wrong that nearly wiped a species off the planet.
Ferrets, it turns out, suffered collateral damage in the century-long campaign by human farmers and ranchers against the prairie dog. Prairie dogs compete with livestock for forage, and riddle and ruin crops with their tunnels and burrows.
But prairie dogs are also key prey for the black-footed ferret, a member the weasel family. Killing off prairie dogs with poisons has put pressure on ferret populations, too.
Eventually, the native ferret was almost extinct, says Forest Service biologist Randy Griebel. "It was literally down to just a handful of individuals," he says.
These days, as many as several hundred wild ferrets are scattered across the grassland and prairie from Arizona to Canada. But it takes a tremendous amount of work to keep these animals on the landscape because of a variety of foes — chief among them a potent microbial killer, plague.
At 11 p.m. one night this fall, Griebel headed out for his second shift of the day – spotlighting for ferrets in South Dakota's Conata Basin. The idea is to locate every ferret in Buffalo Gap National Grassland, give it a checkup and vaccinate it against plague, a bacterial disease that threatens the ferret's comeback.
Griebel drives off-road over a vast stretch of grassland. He uses his right hand to direct a beam of light across the landscape from a spotlight mounted on the top of his truck.
"All right, so what we're looking for is really super bright, emerald green eye-shine," says Griebel, whose compact, muscular build and short haircut betray his first career, in the U.S. Army.
The ground is pockmarked with bare mounds of earth; each one is the entrance to a prairie dog burrow.
Ferrets are wily. They hunt at night — sneaking up on prairie dogs asleep in the burrows, and biting their throats. Ferrets live in the burrows, too.
Ferrets spend most of their time underground, day and night, so it's hard to find them. Hours pass and Griebel has not seen any flashes of green from ferret eyes.
"We're just going to drive this race track over and over and over," he says. In the long hours of looking for ferrets, Griebel's mind plays tricks on him.
"Sometimes it's a ferret; sometimes it's just a bug faking me out," he says with a laugh. "Then, about 4 in the morning, you'll start hallucinating. You'll be seeing green eye-shine all over the place."
Biologists keep up this nightly ritual throughout the fall. It might seem like an absurd amount of work, just to benefit a relative of the weasel, but Griebel says he's driven by the fact that his own species nearly annihilated ferrets by poisoning their prey.
The difficulty of the goal drives him all the more. The ferret went through so much, Griebel says. "Now we're going through so much to try to bring it back."
Ranch Dog Turns Up Wild, Native Ferrets
The roller coaster ride to save the black-footed ferret has lasted more than 30 years, and Dean Biggins, a biologist for the US Geological Survey, has been there from the beginning.
As he drives through ferret habitat in South Dakota's Badland's National Park, Biggins recalls the elation he felt in 1981, when he learned that a remnant population of native ferrets, thought by many to be extinct, had been discovered by a ranch dog in Wyoming.
Biggins says he remembers feeling, "Boy, this is really something! I'll actually get to see one of these animals, [and not just] a mounted specimen."
But a few years later, that lone population started dying fast. So, biologists trapped every last one — 18 in all.
That was a turning point. Government biologists created a successful captive breeding program, and within a few years started putting captive-born ferrets back into the wild.
At first, it didn't go well. The ferrets were so unused to facing predators that coyotes, owls and other hungry animals gobbled them up.
"We just couldn't keep them alive," Biggens recalls. Researchers figured out they needed to give young captive ferrets more training before releasing them to the wild. Keepers started putting captive ferrets in outdoor pens with burrows in them. The young ferrets learned to hide at any sign of danger.
Plague Hinders Ferret Comeback
But it's been much harder to protect ferrets from plague.
In 2008, the Conata Basin had the most ferrets in the country — 350. But Griebel began to notice, as he made his rounds, that he wasn't seeing ferrets in many of the spots where he always used to find them.
Soon, it became clear that the ferrets' main prey was disappearing, too. Prairie dogs started dying by the hundreds of thousands from a fast-moving infection that turned out to be plague. Researchers were caught by surprise because plague had never been in South Dakota before.
The bacteria that cause plague are carried by fleas. Ferrets had to be catching plague either from flea bites, the scientists surmised, or from eating plague-infected animals that had been bitten by fleas.
It's taken a Herculean effort to save the 70 or so ferrets that are left here. Griebel assembled a crew of workers on ATVs who squirted insecticide dust into every prairie dog burrow they could find — hundreds of thousands of them.
The crew still works for 5 months every year, spraying and respraying every burrow across the vast grasslands. Still, on the long nights he spends searching for ferrets in the fall, Griebel feels anxious when he doesn't see that telltale emerald eye-shine.
Green Glow After Midnight
At 2:30 a.m., Griebel spins his truck around for another lap and finally spots a flash of emerald green.
"I see you buddy," he says, speeding toward the glow.
Illuminated by his spotlight and a full moon, Griebel quietly sets a trap, and then gets back into the truck.
He returns every hour, but each time the trap is empty. In the remaining hours before dawn, he sees no more flashes of green.
As the sun rises, Griebel checks his traps one last time. Success.
"We got him!" Griebel calls. "Did you see him?' That is so awesome!"
Capture, Treat and Release
The ferret sounds an ear-splitting alarm as Griebel puts it into a small crate.
He takes the animal for a checkup in a camping trailer that's parked a short drive away, in a sea of grass.
Biologist Travis Livieri, the executive director of Prairie Wildlife Research, a nonprofit conservation research group, gets to work inside the trailer. He can tell from a microchip in the animal that this female ferret was born last year.
He notices that the ferret has lactated, which means she's given birth — good news. Plague hit male ferrets particularly hard last year, and many females didn't have litters.
Livieri gives the animal vaccines for distemper and plague, and combs her to see if she has fleas. She doesn't.
Livieri believes the fate of ferrets will continue to hinge on human ingenuity and science.
Better vaccines, he hopes, will be developed to keep ferrets and prairie dogs safe from plague.
Livieri first started following this population of ferrets 18 years ago, and was surprised by how quickly he fell for the prairie. It's a majestic place, he says, and quintessentially American. Bringing back a species that's only found here is worth whatever effort it takes.
"You look into those little eyes and they look back at you. You see something. You want to help right that wrong."
Randy Griebel releases the female ferret near the prairie dog burrow where he caught her a couple hours earlier. He'd worked an entire night for just one animal.
"Anytime you work this hard, good things should happen," Griebel says.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, he catches the same ferret again. This time, she has with her at least two offspring.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
American pioneers saw the endless stretches of the Great Plains as a place to produce grain and beef for an expanding country. They did so at the expense of the native prairie ecosystem and the animals that thrived there, including the black footed ferret. This long, skinny predator with a raccoon-like mask was once considered extinct. But thanks to a concerted effort, they are now on their way back.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: It's 11 at night. Forest Service biologist Randy Griebel left his kids in bed and he's heading out for his second shift of the day, spotlighting for ferrets in South Dakota's Conata Basin.
RANDY GRIEBEL: All right, I guess we're ready to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE DOOR)
SHOGREN: He drives off-road over a vast stretch of grasslands that are pockmarked with bare mounds of Earth, prairie dog burrows. Ferrets hunt at night.
GRIEBEL: They do their killing below ground.
SHOGREN: They sneak up on prairie dogs while they sleep in their burrows and bite their throats. Ferrets live in these burrows, too.
Griebel's first career was in the Army. He's compact and muscular. He uses his right hand to direct a beam of light from the top of his truck across the landscape.
GRIEBEL: All right, so what we're looking for is like really super bright emerald green eye shine.
SHOGREN: Ferrets are nocturnal. Even at night they spend most of their time underground, so it's hard to find them.
GRIEBEL: We're just going to drive this race track over and over and over and over.
SHOGREN: Hours pass.
GRIEBEL: So sometimes you'll see a little glimpse of something and say, oh, what's that? Sometimes it's a ferret. Sometimes it's just a bug...
GRIEBEL: ...faking me out. Then about four in the morning, you'll start hallucinating and you'll be seeing green eyes shine all over the place.
SHOGREN: Biologists will keep up this nightly ritual throughout the fall in hopes of counting every ferret and giving it a medical exam. It might seem like an absurd amount of work for a relative of the weasel, but Griebel says he's driven by the fact that his own species nearly annihilated ferrets by poisoning prairie dogs - their prey.
GRIEBEL: This species was almost extinct. It was literally down to just a handful of individuals. And the only reason they were down that low was because of what humans did. It went through so much, now we're going through so much to try to bring it back.
SHOGREN: The fact that it's been so hard to save ferrets, that drives him all the more. He's part of a group of biologists who've devoted their lives to saving the native of the Great Plains. It's been 30 years of ups and downs.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
SHOGREN: Dean Biggins has been the rollercoaster ride since the beginning. He's driving me through another ferret habitat on a rainy day in nearby Badlands National Park. Biggins recalls how he felt in 1981. Experts believed ferrets were extinct. Then a ranch dog discovered a remnant population in Wyoming.
DEAN BIGGINS: It was really a moment of elation then. It was a feeling of that, boy, this is really something. I'll actually get to see one of these animals, which I'd never done except as a mounted specimen.
SHOGREN: But a few years later, that lone population started dying - fast. Biologists trapped every last one - 18 in all. They created a successful captive breeding program then started putting captive-born ferrets back into the wild. Biggins remembers at first it didn't go well.
BIGGINS: They just seemed very naive when they got out here.
SHOGREN: Coyotes, owls and other predators gobbled them up.
BIGGINS: We just couldn't keep them alive.
SHOGREN: Biologists figured out that they had to give young captive ferrets more training before releasing them to the wild. When their keepers put the captive ferrets in outdoor pens with burrows in them, the ferrets learned to hide at any sign of danger. But it's been much harder to protect ferrets against a microscopic threat. In 2008, South Dakota's Canata Basin had the most ferrets - 350 of them. Then Randy Griebel started noticing something strange.
GRIEBEL: We just could not find any ferrets. It's like, man, they should be out here. I don't know where they're at.
SHOGREN: Soon, the ferrets' main prey was also disappearing. Prairie dogs started dying by the hundreds of thousands. Plague was the culprit. Researchers were caught by surprise because plague had never been in South Dakota before. It's taken a Herculean effort to save the 70 or so ferrets that are left here. To save the ferrets they had to help out the prairie dogs. Plague is carried by fleas. So, Griebel took crews of ATVs and started spraying insecticide dust into every prairie dog burrow - hundreds of thousands of them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ATVS RUNNING)
SHOGREN: Crews still spray insecticide dust. It takes 5 months every year to get every hole. What are they doing?
GRIEBEL: So, basically he's driving up the burrow, he's inserting the wand right there.
SHOGREN: Squirting white powder into the hole and moving to the next burrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF ATVS RUNNING)
SHOGREN: At about 2:30 in the morning, Griebel spins his truck around for another lap. I spot a flash of emerald green.
GRIEBEL: I see you, buddy.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS OPENING AND CLOSING)
SHOGREN: We jump out into the moonlight.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS OPENING AND CLOSING)
GRIEBEL: See the eye shine? He's sitting there looking at us right now.
SHOGREN: I see him, yeah, yeah. Griebel quietly set traps.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
SHOGREN: We come back every hour to check. Nothing. The sun is rising as Griebel checks his traps one last time.
GRIEBEL: We got him. Did you see him? That is so awesome. Oh, you're tiny.
SHOGREN: That's such a high noise. The ferret sounds an alarm as Griebel puts it into a small crate. We take the ferret for a checkup in a camping trailer that's parked in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a sea of grass in South Dakota's Canata Basin.
TRAVIS LIVIERI: Skeeters are brutal, dude.
SHOGREN: Biologist Travis Livieri from Prairie Wildlife Research says the ferret is a female born last year.
LIVIERI: Looks like she had a litter. Whether the kits are still around or not, we cannot say for sure.
SHOGREN: Still, this is a good news. Last year, many females didn't have litters. Livieri gives her shots, vaccines for distemper and plague, combs her to see if she has fleas.
LIVIERI: She looks clean. That's good.
SHOGREN: What do you think their prospects are?
LIVIERI: I think that the ingenuity of humans and science is the future of black footed ferrets.
SHOGREN: Like better vaccines to keep ferrets safe from plague. Livieri has been at this for 18 years. He was surprised by how quickly he fell for the prairies and the ferret. He says it's a majestic place. It's quintessential America. He says bringing back a species that's only found here is worth whatever it takes.
LIVIERI: When you look into those little eyes and they look back at you. You see something. You want to help right that wrong. They belong here. We were the ones that destroyed their habitat and took them out of it. So, we owe it to them to give it our best shot to restore them.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERRET)
SHOGREN: Wow, she skedaddled, huh?
LIVIERI: Yes, she went...
SHOGREN: We release the ferret in the same place we caught her. A whole night's work for one animal. Randy Griebel says anytime you work this hard, good things should happen.
GRIEBEL: I'm hoping all this hard work pays off eventually.
SHOGREN: A few weeks later, Griebel caught the same ferret again. That time, he spotted at least two offspring with her. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.