Black-footed ferret or farmers? You may believe that both can exist without conflict, but not under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed "Black-footed Ferret Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement."
If you pay attention to the news and world events, you are probably aware that the black-footed ferret is nearly extinct and is considered an endangered species by the USFWS. In fact, the population of the ferret dropped to only 10 known animals in 1985, meaning they are nearly extinct, and one could argue from a genetic viewpoint, they are already extinct.
What is the reason for the decline? I don't know, as I am a farmer and a Kansas Farm Bureau board member, not a specialist on the black-footed ferret. I have been told they have failed, in part, because of poor breeding characteristics in the remaining population and because coyotes consider them "popcorn." Regardless of the reason, there are very few around.
The problem that the Kansas Farm Bureau has with the USFWS plan to re-establish the ferret is that they are not basing the proposal on sound, scientific principles.
First, with only 10 known black-footed ferrets, scientists argue there isn't enough genetic diversity within the population for them to survive. Lack of genetic diversity leads to an unhealthy population. Many biologists have argued there is no way for the black-footed ferret to flourish when starting out with such low numbers.
Despite this fact, the wildlife service has established a reintroduction site in Logan County. Are black-footed ferrets a problem for farmers and ranchers in Logan County? Yes, but mostly indirectly. The ferrets rely on the prairie dog to survive. They feed on the young prairie dogs and live in their burrows. The uncontrolled prairie dog population in Logan County is really the problem.
Why is it uncontrolled? Because the ferret numbers are so low they don't need many prairie dogs to survive, and since the measures available to farmers and ranchers to control the prairie dog overgrowth will also kill the black-footed ferret and because the prairie dog is a very prolific rodent, population reduction is a nearly impossible, almost futile, task. Uncontrolled prairie dog populations destroy growing vegetation, reducing or eliminating cattle grazing and cropping on surrounding farmlands. This has been proven in the area surrounding the Logan County reintroduction site.
When USFWS established the reintroduction site, it promised local landowners it would contain the ferrets and the prairie dog on the site by putting up a fence. Most knowledgeable folks laugh at the notion that a fence will contain a burrowing animal because they will just tunnel under the fence.
Common sense, right?
Well, not to USFWS. It funded a study at Kansas State University, which was published and titled, "Efficacy on Native Grassland Barriers on Limiting Prairie Dog Dispersal in Logan County, Kansas." The study concluded that the fence used in Logan County did not slow or stop the dispersal of prairie dogs away from the ferret reintroduction site.
USFWS is proposing to establish 40 or 50 more reintroduction sites in the High Plains. The basis of this plan is to provide the participating landowner with a safe harbor agreement with assurances that he will face no harm for allowing the black-footed ferret on his property.
The problem that Kansas farmers and ranchers have with this plan is that it does not provide any protection to the neighboring farms and ranches. The proposed sites will have containment fences like the one in Logan County, which has been proven to be ineffective at containing the prairie dog and black-footed ferrets, and a 0.10-mile buffer strip around the site where the prairie dog population will be controlled.
The USFWS plan doesn't specify who will control the prairie dogs within the buffer strip or who will pay the expense. Farmers and ranchers around the Logan County site will tell you the fence and buffer strip do not work and that the prairie dog population has exploded for several miles around the site.
Why should you be concerned with an exploding prairie dog population? Several reasons come to mind.
First and foremost is the fact that the prairie dog can carry the bubonic plague. Yes, the plague, which has caused several epidemics throughout history, one that killed an estimated 25 million humans in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the United States from 1994 to 1998, at least 40 humans contracted the plague. Nine out of 17 tested cases were directly attributed to prairie dogs.
Uncontrolled prairie dog populations can also eliminate vegetation from the surrounding areas, which reduces or eliminates farm productivity and income by reducing crop yields and livestock grazing on land surrounding the reintroduction sites. In some cases, the vegetation removal has allowed severe wind erosion to occur.
Uncontrolled prairie dog populations reduce the value of the land and may reduce or eliminate the ability for a landowner to sell his property. So landowners around uncontrolled prairie dog sites have reduced or eliminated income from their land and can't sell their land because no one else wants to purchase their problem.
In addition to the reduced income and loss of land value, the neighboring landowners will also have additional prairie dog control expenses and liability if they accidentally kill a black-footed ferret.
Unless changed significantly, the end result of the USFWS plan to reintroduce the ferret will be significant problems for surrounding landowners and counties who will need to control the inevitable prairie dog explosion.
Will the black-footed ferret benefit? Perhaps, but at what expense? And finally, will the inbred population of ferrets even have enough genetic diversity to survive on their own?
Jim Sipes received a master's degree in agronomy from Kansas State University and then returned home to the family farm in Stanton County. He is the fourth generation to work the ground alongside his uncle and father. Sipes represents the Kansas Farm Bureau's Ninth District on the state board of directors. He also has served on the Stanton County Farm Bureau board as well as the Kansas Farm Bureau's state wheat and resolutions committees. Jim represents the Kansas Farm Bureau on the committee developing the Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Credit Exchange.