MEETEETSE, Wyo. (AP) — Long gone from these parts, black-footed ferrets still appear on Meeteetse’s town logo, in a bronze sculpture downtown and even on coffee mugs from a downtown restaurant, remembered for when the nocturnal weasels made their last stand in the nearby sagebrush hills.
They’re set to make a triumphant return.
On Tuesday, following a bit of ferret carnival at a school in Meeteetse, biologists plan to release 35 black-footed ferrets raised in captivity on two local ranches. The release will complete the circle of a story that began in 1981, when a ranch dog named Shep brought home a dead black-footed ferret and let the world know the species wasn’t extinct after all.
Five years later, biologists captured the area’s remaining wild ferrets for a successful captive-breeding program that since the 1990s has released hundreds of ferrets.
Now, those descendants of Meeteetse’s ferrets will return to Meeteetse at last.
“It’s only fitting that we bring ferrets back to the place where they were last discovered,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ryan Moehring said Monday. “This is a reintroduction unlike any other.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service breeds black-footed ferrets at a facility near Fort Collins, Colorado. There, the young ferrets go through a “boot camp” where they learn how to catch prairie dogs.
Ferrets have been released at 24 sites in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Arizona and Kansas, as well as Canada and Mexico. Recent release sites include the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver last fall.
In Wyoming, black-footed ferrets were reintroduced in the sparsely populated Shirley Basin in the southeast part of the state in 1991. They’ve been released in the basin several times since.
This will be the first ferret release in Wyoming in almost a decade. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated all of Wyoming as a zone for “experimental, non-essential” populations of black-footed ferrets.
The designation indemnifies ranchers in case they accidentally harm any ferrets released on their property. More ranchers will agree to such releases if they are less worried about getting in trouble, the thinking goes.
The Lazy BV and Pitchfork ranches, where black-footed ferrets lived in the Meeteetse area, have agreed to host ferrets once again in prairie dog colonies covering thousands of acres. Biologists flocked to the area after the ferret discovery, recalled Meeteetse Mayor J.W. Yetter, who worked in the local logging industry at the time.
“There was a whole crew of university people and wildlife biologists in training quartered up at the timber creek ranger station. They were the ones charged with tracking, capturing, radio collaring and generally discovering the extent of that colony and getting biologic information about the members of that colony,” Yetter said.
The release will be cause for celebration in Meeteetse, population 230. The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to show off the ferrets — and an older, “ambassador” ferret named Two Bit who doesn’t get to be released — at the local school.
The release will be filmed and screened back in town later in the evening.
“There seems to be a lot of excitement about it,” Yetter said.
Biologists also have been preparing for the big day, treating vast colonies of prairie dogs with an experimental plague vaccine and insecticide to kill off fleas. Plague, a disease transmitted by fleas, can wipe out prairie dogs by the thousand.
Black-footed ferrets prey on prairie dogs. Wildlife officials want to do all they can to make sure the reintroduced ferrets have plenty of food, said Zack Walker, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist.
“You basically just spray it inside the burrow, a little bit in each burrow to reduce the flea load,” Walker said.
The goal: Treat 5,000 acres of prairie dog colonies on the Lazy BV and Pitchfork ranches with insecticide this summer.
Biologists in Montana have begun experimenting using drones to treat black-footed ferret habitat with plague vaccine. Walker doubts that will happen in Wyoming any time soon.