Challenges To Black-Footed Ferret Recovery: Protecting Prairie Dogs

Brian Miller, Richard P. Reading
February, 2012

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) recovery program is an example of single-species manage- ment to preserve flora and fauna. We argue that conservationists must move beyond that approach for success. In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a down-listing goal of 1500 adult black-footed ferrets in 10 wild populations by 2010. The recovery program has only reached 23% of that goal. The overriding reason is the lack of regulatory mechanisms for poisoning and shooting prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) and our inability to control occurrence of plague (Yersinia pestis) in prairie dogs. We propose that prairie dogs need, and deserve, some level of federal protection to address these factors and that the primary goal for conservation of black-footed ferrets should be maintaining numbers and distributions of prairie dogs at sufficient temporal and geographic scales to restore them to a level of ecological function in the grasslands. We contend that prairie dogs qualify for protection in at least 4 of the 5 categories used to assess level of threat under the Endangered Species Act. A species needs to qualify in one of those categories to merit protection. The threat posed by plague should itself be sufficient reason to justify prairie dog protection, both for themselves and for the black-footed ferret recovery program.