Even at a young age, I was a dedicated enthusiast of strange and unusual animals. I still remember the deep regret that I would never see this cool-looking animal hunting prairie dogs on the Great Plains.
Thirty years later, I stood on those plains, as three wild black-footed ferrets darted around my feet.
I recently participated in a crazy weekend road trip across the Southwest, looking for some of the world’s most unusual animals with Jon Hall, the editor of MammalWatching.com and a man on a mission to see as many of the world’s wild mammals as possible.
Sometimes, the search for vanishing animals might seem like a depressing quest: the rush to see animals before they disappear forever.
That wasn’t the case on this trip: In fact, this is probably the best time to catch a glimpse of a wild ferret in 50 years.
Let’s admit up front that conservationists love stories of doom and gloom, particularly about wildlife. Read recent reports about tiger populations, or rhino poaching, or the future of the world’s fisheries, and it’s pretty difficult to feel optimistic.
Sure, there’s always suggestions about plans and summits to discuss conservation, but when it comes to tigers and rhinos, the overall tone is one of gloomy inevitability.
As the story of the black-footed ferret shows, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Quite simply, black-footed ferrets require prairie dogs to survive: They feed on these rodents, and use their burrows to hide from larger predators. The loss of prairie dog towns across the West spelled doom for ferrets.
By the 1960s, only one ferret population, located in South Dakota, could be confirmed. In 1974, that colony disappeared.
By 1979, no living ferrets could be found anywhere — presumably the end of the line for the creatures.
However, in 1981, a rancher’s dog in Wyoming brought home a dead ferret. That startling event led biologists to a previously undiscovered ferret population, setting off one last, desperate chance to save the species.
The story that followed often seemed hopeless.
A captive breeding program suffered setback after setback, with disease and failure ruling the day.
Still, in the end, conservationists (and ferrets) prevailed: Today, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to 18 sites in eight states, as well as Canada and Mexico.
To say their future is secure is overstatement. They’re still one of the rarest animals on Earth. Their populations require a lot of monitoring and research.
They’re not extinct, though. And in some places, they’re doing quite well.
On a warm night in Arizona, Hall and I visited with black-footed ferret researchers Jennifer Cordova and Trent Binford-Walsh of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Ferret Recovery Team in Seligman, Ariz.
Both Jon and I had doubts we’d be able to see ferrets in the wild, but the ferret biologists assured us that we’d have no problem spotting them on ranchlands along historic Route 66.
“You’ll see ferrets tonight, guaranteed,” said Binford-Walsh.
It didn’t take long. Five minutes, in fact.
Driving slowly along the road with spotlights, we picked up the distinctive green eye shine of black-footed ferrets.
We approached slowly on foot, only to have three curious ferrets approach within a few feet of us.
An amazing moment: A creature, one presumed gone forever, now stared into my eyes.
It’s a moment to cherish, yes, but also a moment to pull out whenever I read those doom-and-gloom predictions for other wild creatures.
Read more: If you want to read more optimistic stories of wildlife conservation, I highly recommend "Hope for Animals and Their World,: a book and website by Jane Goodall. You’ll find dozens of stories of people who saved species from extinction, often against the longest of odds.
— Text by Matt Miller, Cool Green Science Blog