Book captures the struggle to save the black-footed ferret

2014-05-18T00:00:00Z Book captures the struggle to save the black-footed ferretBy DARRELL EHRLICK The Billings Gazette

“Wild Again: The Struggle to Save the Black-Footed Ferret”

By David Jachowski

University of California Press, 2014

On one hand, David Jachowski’s book, “Wild Again: The Struggle To Save the Black-Footed Ferret,” seems like a simple, straightforward book — a chronicle of trying to bring a species back from near-extinction.

Yet, Jachowski’s book isn’t so much a story about the black-footed ferret; it’s a paean to the prairie as well as a tragic example of how delicate even something as vast and harsh as the plains are.

Jachowski has been on the forefront of helping to bring back the black-footed ferret — studying its habitat and patterns, trying to understand how to re-grow the population so that it can stand on its own.

Even today, after reintroduction and programs aimed to save the endangered species, the black-footed ferret’s existence is very much in doubt, due in large part to Slyvatic Plague, a disease that has decimated prairie dog colonies, the ferrets’ primary food source.

“They may be the most specialized predators in the world,” Jachowski said.

Black-footed ferrets have co-existed wherever prairie dogs lived. Biologists from the last century mistakenly believed that if prairie dogs were eradicated, the ferrets would turn to other food sources like squirrel or rabbit. However, the ferrets’ primary food source was wiped out in many areas, and this highly specific predator disappeared with it.

Jachowski’s book takes readers across the continent and time as he tells the story of how the black-footed ferret was nearly wiped out, and how it had survived in some pretty tough climates. It also captures the failures of programs to breed the animals well in captivity as well as efforts to conserve the animal and its habitat.

“Ranchers tend to like the idea of black-footed ferrets because they hunt prairie dogs,” Jachowski said. “But they tend to be more reluctant when it comes to trying to preserve prairie dogs. But, if you don’t preserve one, you’ll lose the other.”

Because saving the ferrets means saving prairie dogs — an animal thought by many ranchers and farmers to be a pest — Jachowski emphasizes finding a cure for the plague.

“Unless we can find a vaccine, I am pessimistic about the future,” Jachowski said.

And that’s why he turned his efforts to writing a book about the black-footed ferret. Jachowski said that if the species is going to survive, more than just field biologists and ecologists will have to take up the cause. In order for that to happen, they must understand the story — a story not just of the ferrets themselves, but of the paradox of a harsh, unforgiving land that is also in a fragile balance.

Jachowski said, for some reason black-footed ferrets don’t reproduce well in captivity, but the reasons for that are not well understood. Yet, the ferret can endure harsh Montana winters, and the scorching Mexican summers, and its primary food source, prairie dogs, often outweighs it.

“It’s a fiesty animal that can take care of itself in the wild,” Jachowski said.

The question remains: Can the wild take care of it?

“This fight no longer depends on ecologists or biologists who study the ins and outs of the ferrets which are, by now, pretty well understood. That is, we know what it needs, what it feeds on,” Jachowski said. “What we need are people to care about it and that care will help influence public policy.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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