SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A species of ferrets once thought to be extinct has been seen outside of special management areas in South Dakota, sparking hope in some biologists that a new wild colony of black-footed ferrets has been discovered.
A wildlife biologist with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said an adult ferret and two juveniles spotted during a nighttime survey in prairie dog towns west of Mobridge could be the first sighting of the creatures in the wild in more than three decades.
"It's pretty exciting," biologist Barry Betts told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/UuIF0w ). "I've been in the business for 40 years, and this is only the second time in my life that I've ever seen a black-footed ferret."
The Standing Rock tribe straddles the state line between North Dakota and South Dakota.
Despite Betts' optimism that the discovery could be a new wild colony, other biologists are skeptical. Pete Gober, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's national ferret recovery program, said it's unlikely the trio is from a long-lost colony.
He said it's more likely that the ferrets migrated from one of the six reintroduction sites — which has been the goal of the recovery effort from the beginning.
The black-footed ferret is the comeback kid of the west. Its survival is dependent on its main food source, prairie dogs, which were hunted to near-extinction for their pelts. As the prairie dogs disappeared, so, too, did the black-footed ferrets, and for decades the species was believed to be extinct.
That changed 31 years ago when a farm dog in Meeteetse, Wyo., brought a dead ferret to his owners. That led to the discovery of a colony, which has since allowed biologists to breed and release the ferrets into six reintroduction sites in South Dakota.
The site in Mobridge, where the adult and two juveniles were spotted Halloween night, is not one of the reintroduction sites.
Betts said the tribe will trap some of the ferrets and check for chips that had been planted in some captive animals. They'll also draw blood to learn whether the ferrets are of the same genetic pool as the Meeteetse clan.
If they prove to be a truly wild colony, it would give biologists a new source of genetic material to diversify the ferret's genome, giving the species a better chance of adapting and surviving in the wild.
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com