Rancher Gary Walker squats in his cowboy boots and jeans and rests a small animal carrier against a black-tailed prairie dog hole before swinging the door open. He's careful to keep his hands out of the way.
"These are little vicious guys, too," Walker says, with a laugh. "I just love 'em."
The black-footed ferret inside is timid at first, and buries herself in the shredded paper of her enclosure. But with a little coaxing, she bounds into the hole, than peeps her head out to stare across 65,000 acres of flat, short-grass prairie that will be her new home. Her pink snout twitches. Her eyes blink behind a Zorro-like mask of black fur.
If all goes well, this little girl and her buddies will live to be 3 or 4 years old here on Walker's Turkey Creek Ranch, located between Fort Carson and Pueblo West. They'll live in prairie dog holes, emerging mostly at night, when they'll search from burrow to burrow until they find a sleeping prairie dog, which they'll bite on the neck and asphyxiate with their slinky bodies. A ferret can live on a prairie dog corpse for about three days before killing again.
She and the 18 others being released today could produce as many as four litters, usually of three to four kits, but sometimes as few as one or as many as 10. Less than a year after they're born, the young males will begin mostly solitary lives. The females hopefully will grow up and have families of their own.
But there's plenty of things that could cut these ferrets' lives short. Luckily, since Gary Walker and his wife Georgia have agreed to allow the ferrets and prairie dogs to live on their land (and have already set aside over 21,888 acres as a conservation easement that will never be developed), they won't be poisoned or otherwise killed.
"Before we're through, we hope that from Penrose to Piñon and across the Arkansas River, our holdings, the Walker Ranch holdings, will never be part of a development," Gary Walker says. "These will be open spaces forever, where the ferrets can roam free."
Prairie dogs, which live throughout the Great Plains, as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico, have often been targeted by ranchers who say they compete too heavily with cattle for grass, or by farmers who see them as pests. They now cover less than 2 percent of their former territory. And as the prairie dogs have disappeared, so have the ferrets, which in a natural setting help keep prairie dog populations in check.
A huge part of the problem for both has been Sylvatic plague, which was brought from overseas ages ago, and canine distemper. Both diseases spread quickly and are fatal. Ferrets can also fall prey to any number of predators.
"They have a tough, short little life," says John Hughes, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But for the black-footed ferret, the only American species of ferret, which was nearly extinct not so long ago, any kind of life is a gift. And it's only through a massive effort involving federal and state agencies, nonprofits, tribes and landowners that they're finally making a comeback.
The black-footed ferret has been thought extinct twice.
They were assumed gone in the late 1950s, but in 1964 a small population was found in Mellette County, S.D. Scientists attempted to breed some of them in captivity but were unsuccessful. The last one died in 1979.
Then, in 1981, a ranch dog dragged a strange-looking creature home near Meeteetse, Wyo. The rancher brought it to a taxidermist, who identified it and called government officials. The population that was found peaked to 129 ferrets in 1984, but it was hit hard by disease. Between 1985 and 1987, 24 were captured, 18 of whom survived. Seven bred. And from that, we now have hundreds of ferrets, both in the wild and in captivity.
Della Garelle, a veterinarian and director of field conservation at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, estimates that there might be around 800 of them alive. The zoo, which is one of five breeding sites in the country, has 28. It's been a breeding site since 1990, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also breeds other endangered species. Visitors don't usually see any of those animals.
Garelle works with the other breeding sites, trading ferrets to maintain a carefully tracked balance of the genes of the original seven breeding ferrets. Many end up in Wellington, Colo., at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center.
Hughes, the wildlife biologist, is one of the center staff that helps the ferrets at the facility, which he says is "basically a walled-in prairie dog town." There, kits learn to hunt prairie dogs. The successful ones are considered for re-entry into the wild. They're only released in areas where they'll be relatively safe, and where there is a healthy prairie dog community that covers at least 2,000 acres.
Even then, it's risky. Reintroduced populations are still wiped out by disease at times.
While captive ferrets can be inoculated, their kits are harder to protect. Scientists travel to some of the wild places where they're released, to try and capture and inoculate new generations, but it's difficult work. Areas where ferrets live are also often dusted with pesticides to cut back on insects that can be vectors for disease. Scientists are currently working on an oral plague inoculation that could be baited to prairie dogs, hopefully creating "herd immunity."
"We could recover the species," Hughes says, "without plague."
Prairie dogs are what is known as a "keystone species" — one with a disproportionate effect on its environment.
That's because the holes they create help water reach plant roots in the arid West and provide homes for other animals, like the ferret, burrowing owls and swift fox. They're also prey for many species.
But getting ranchers to stop killing prairie dogs has been difficult, and the release of ferrets wasn't even widely allowed in the state until the passage of 2013's Colorado Senate Bill 169, which allowed their release on private land with a landowner's consent, so long as the owners had signed on to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' Safe Harbor Agreement. Safe Harbor offers incentives to landowners who agree to allow the government to manage an endangered species on their land. Landowners can't purposely kill the animals, but the program protects them if they accidentally kill animals in the general use of their land.
The Walkers were considered trailblazers for allowing ferrets on their land, and dozens have been released there this year and last year. Several other property owners in the state have since allowed the ferrets on their land, and some public lands are also seeing ferrets introduced since the passage of 2014's Colorado House Bill 1267, which allowed for that.
Tom Warren, the retired environmental program director for the Department of the Army at Fort Carson who has worked for years to bring back the ferret, says the key to recovering the species will be ongoing cooperation between experts and the environmental stewardship of ranchers.
"It was golden opportunity," he says of slow recovery of the ferrets, "that basically came to pass because a whole lot of us were dedicated to it and made it happen."