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Weasel answers

The slinky visitor poking his head out from above a downed tree gave us a curious look as we pulled ashore in our canoe. The tiny creature was slim, with brown fur over most of its body. Its chest, however, was white.

I immediately thought it was a weasel, something I rarely see in the outdoors. By looking at a book that contains photographs and information on some of the wildlife found in Yellowstone National Park, I found out that it was likely a short-tailed weasel, also called an ermine or stoat.

The weasel is a member of the Mustelidae family that includes badgers, otters and ferrets. Other weasels in the family that are found in Montana are the long-tailed weasel and the least weasel.

Short-tailed weasels, as their name may give away, are a bit smaller (8 to 13 inches) than their long-tailed cousins (13-18 inches). The long-tailed weasel has a buff to rusty orange chest in the summer, helping to set it apart. In the winter, however, the fur on both small mammals turns snowy white, yet they both still have a black tip on their tails.

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The least weasel is the smallest member of the family and the smallest meat eater in North America. A full-grown least weasel is less than 10 inches long.

Weasels will eat other small mammals like mice, rabbits, chipmunks and frogs along with insects like grasshoppers. Because they are long and skinny, they can even slither down into rodent burrows to find prey like voles and shrews. In the winter, weasels will hunt under the snow. Although they are most active during the night, weasels will also hunt during the daytime.

Because they like to live in brushy, wooded areas near water, short-tailed weasels are found in the western half of Montana. Least weasels are found everywhere but northwestern Montana. And long-tailed weasels are found everywhere in Montana. They make their homes in rock piles, burrows, hollowed out stumps and even old buildings.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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