Black Footed Ferret
In the past three decades very few endangered species have been restored to
viable populations. The black footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was believed to
be the most endangered mammal in the united states. It is a small mink sized
carnivore of the Great plains and intermountain basins The ferrets appear to be
obligatory predators on the prairie dogs and once occupied a range essentially
identical to that of the prairie dogs. They prey on them and also use their
burrows for shelter and nesting. The prairie dogs are considered agricultural
pests and competitors with livestock since white settlement first began in the

American west. Large scale rodent control programs were implemented by the state
and federal governments. They drastically reduced the population of prairie dogs
(and other species related to the prairie dog ecosystem) through trapping,
gassing and poisoning. These poisoning programs were considered a major cause of
the ferret’s demise. But, the main cause was the loss of the ferret’s prey
base and appropriate habitat. Their remaining habitat was fragmented thus
leaving the ferret population vulnerable to extinction from various causes
including inability to find mates, inbreeding depression, environmental events,
and disease of ferrets and their prey. The ferrets were believed to be extinct
in 1974, but in 1981 a ferret was discovered in Meeteetsee, Wyoming when a ranch
dog killed an unusual animal eating from its food dish and the rancher took the
carcass to a knowledgeable taxidermist. This was viewed as a rare chance to
recover the species. In 1985, a catastrophic disease struck the small ferret
population, and most remaining animals were taken into captivity. Captive
breeding was initiated, and reintroduction into the wild from the captive
population began in 1991. The ferret is just one of more than 900 species listed
under the Endangered Species act as either threatened or endangered. Over three
thousand more species wait on a list of candidates for such status, but in the

1980s over thirty-four species went extinct while on the waiting list (Cohn,

1993). Is the ferret program representative of the national effort to recover
species? Main body: United States policy on endangered species, including the
ferret and hundreds of other plants and animals, is codified in the 1973

Endangered Species act (ESA ,as amended, U.S. Congress 1983, Bean 1991) . This
piece of legislation sets a national goal the prevention of any further
extinction and the restoration of species currently threatened with extinction.

The ESA is a highly popular piece of legislature because no one would advocate
the killing of an entire species. But the simple goal of saving a species cloaks
a complicated process. The ferret case is a good illustration of how the ESA is
actually outfitted, how and state officials and others tackle the complex work
of restoring species, and how problems come about in nearly all recovery plans.

In short, the ferret rescue is a measure of how the ESA really works. After
finding the small population in Wyoming, in 1981, one might expect a well led
and smoothly coordinated recovery effort to have been quickly organized to save
a species that had been recognized as America’s most endangered mammal. Many
universities, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and local
people were willing to help. Collectively they command substantial resources,
not only in terms of money: national and international expertise on population
genetics and small population management, experienced field researchers, tested
breeding facilities, and support staffs from major zoos. All that was needed for
the ferrets to be restored swiftly, professionally, and efficiently was a means
to bring the talent together in a productive well organized program. Under the

ESA, the task of organizing recovery efforts is the responsibility of the
federal government acting through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the

U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Federal officials had numerous options
open to them at the start of the ferret program, one of which was to function
like administrators of a large hospital, pulling together a world-class
professional team, supporting the necessary work with adequate funding,
equipment and facilities, and relying on the team’s judgment to bring about
the patient’s recovery. But this model was not selected. The ferret program
was organized and operated very differently. Section 6 of the ESA requires that
states be involved to the "maximum extent practicable." Early in 1982,
the federal government turned the main responsibility for ferret restoration
over to the state of Wyoming. Almost immediately, problems began to emerge.

Through a formal resolution, the American Society of mammologists (1986:786)
urged "the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Fish and Game department,
and other state wildlife departments, and numerous