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Ferrets, reintroduced in Arizona, bearing offspring in the wild

Monday, December 24, 2001

By Arthur H. Rotstein, The Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Weeks of tromping through grassy brush at 3 a.m., lugging a heavy backpack, shining a spotlight into the night looking for pairs of emerald-green eyes finally paid off for a team of state biologists.

Before dawn one morning, Arizona Game and Fish workers spotted their quarry, little masked critters staring back at the light.

The three wild-born black-footed ferret kits found that early morning in northwestern Arizona, and three more spotted the next, were the proof the state agency needed to show that a long-nurtured reintroduction program was working.

"This was the first time we found a litter, so it's good news, because we finally are showing that they are capable of surviving long enough to have offspring," said biologist Richard Winstead.

Winstead's team has been focused since 1996 on nurturing a captive-raised population of ferrets to return them to the wild to live and breed.

Their work is part of a broader U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to re-establish one of North America's most endangered animals in Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, South Dakota and, within the past few weeks, in Colorado and northwestern Mexico.

Around mid-May, Winstead and his team released 16 ferrets, including 10 pregnant females, in the Aubrey Valley, 30,000 square acres of grasslands and small shrubs between Peach Springs and Seligman, Ariz.

The area has the state's highest density of Gunnison's prairie dogs, the ferret's favorite prey, and the release was timed to prairie dog birthings, Winstead said.

The recent discovery of young is an encouraging sign.

"What it means for that particular species is that we have better than a fighting chance of getting them re-established here despite unforeseeable things like disease outbreaks," said Bob Posey, Game and Fish regional supervisor in Kingman. "We know now that they can reproduce in the wild and that's a major plus."

Other wild births have been recorded in South Dakota and Montana.

Previous Arizona releases had not resulted in positive sightings of wild-born ferret offspring outside acclimation pens set up on top of empty prairie dog burrows.

The nocturnal black-footed ferret -- the only one native to North America -- weighs about 1 1/2 pounds and is about 18 inches long. It is tan with a brownish-black raccoonlike face mask and has black feet and a black-tipped tail.

The ferret spends most of its life wriggling through prairie dog burrows. The animals are closely tied to -- and dwindled with -- the prairie dog population, which shrank from disease, poisoning and development.

Authorities estimate there are only 600 to 700 black-footed ferrets today, about half living in the wild.

Winstead said the reintroduction program will have two measures for success: survival in the wild for a year or longer, and reproduction. For the Aubrey Valley, he said, that would mean about 30 adults and their offspring.

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