In 1980, this conversation would have been unheard of. Just a year earlier, the black-footed ferret was declared extinct and thought to be gone forever. By 1981, they were rediscovered in Wyoming and put back on the Endangered Species list where they stand today.
At a public meeting Nov. 20 at the Converse County Library a coalition of more than 30 landowners, United States Forest Service staff and members of various animal rights groups discussed possible ways the black-footed ferret can be re-introduced to the Thunder Basin Natural Grassland.
Reintroducing the ferrets to the TBNG is the only way their population can grow to the point it would be taken off the endangered species list, according to Lindsey Sterling Krank from Humane Society US. According to information from the public meeting, it would take 4,500 acres to establish a cohort of approximately 30 ferrets – though not all those acres would have to be in one chunk. The stated goal from the wildlife groups is to have 60 ferrets in Thunder Basin.
While the ferrets were the basis of the meeting, they were not the focus, their main food source was. The black-footed ferret’s population first decreased because of a dwindling prairie dog population, so the prairie dog was the main point of conversation, and contention, at the library.
Four distinct alternatives were proposed by the Forest Service during the meeting. The first plan was the most straightforward, the “no action” alternative. It includes a 51,000 acre black-footed ferret reintroduction habitat as well as 33,000 acres of prairie dog habitats and no boundary management zone.
It also comes with strict thresholds for rodenticide use and no recreational shooting in the proposed area.
Alternative two, called the “proposed action” plan, is slightly more complex. One major difference is that the proposed management area would change from 51,000 acres to approximately 35,000. It also includes a target of 10,000 acres for prairie dog colonies.
The second plan would create a 1/4 mile boundary management zone with the use of rodenticide allowed regardless of colony acres, according to the USFS presentation.
It also says, “Rodenticides may be used to maintain satellite colonies at designated size.”
There would also be a seasonal restriction on recreational shooting from Feb. 1 through Aug. 15, but there would not be a restriction on the shooting of prairie dogs on parts of the grassland not designated by the Forest Service.
Alternatives three and four were both newly formulated, coming from the last comment period on ferret reintroduction.
Plan three, called “Grassland-wide” would provide a 29,000 acre management area.
It also proposes that prairie dog colonies located anywhere on National Forest Service land would count toward the proposed acreage range of 10,000–15,000 for the prairie dogs. There is also a 1/4 mile wide BMZ grassland-wide in the plan with no restrictions on the shooting of prairie dogs.
Option four, called “prairie dog emphasis,” provides the most ground set aside for the prairie dogs, which several experts said are vital to the Thunder Basin ecosystem. The most significant difference in this plan is that there would be a year-round prohibition of recreational prairie dog shooting within specified lands.
Beyond all of the legalese about land use and allotted acreage was a far simpler message from the landowners. They want to make sure their voices are heard about where the prairie dogs will be and how their livelihoods will be affected. One landowner in the meeting, Ty Checketts, made an offer to the committee that he has given for years while this has been discussed.
“I’ve been to all these meetings and said I’ll take 1,500 acres of prairie dogs,” Checketts said.
He was not alone in showing willingness to take on a prairie dog nest, but the worry still remains that the prairie dogs will do whatever they please once they are on the land. Another attendee joked that the prairie dogs were not part of the meeting and they aren’t concerned with the agreements.
While this was the only meeting of the group that will be held during the comment period, which lasts until Jan. 9, 2020, nobody wanted it to be the end of conversation. Everybody involved was encouraged to continue talking and working toward a plan that can be mutually agreed upon.
“We really are looking for all of the ideas out there,” Russ Bacon of the USFS said.
A decision will not be made for the ferrets in the coming weeks, but everyone involved is hopeful that in the coming years a plan can be selected, supported, funded and put into action.
While the proposed plans only directly affect the included stakeholders, the Thunder Basin National grassland covers 547,499 square acres of Wyoming just north of Douglas on WYO 59.
The final environmental impact study and draft record of decision is currently planned for release in May 2020. The final record of decision could then be filed as soon as October 2020.