Readers of this blog will remember that I recently recommended David Jachowski’s book, Wild Again, about the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. So it goes without saying that I am thrilled to present this Q&A with Professor Jachowski. I hope you all enjoy it and you go buy his book!
1. Please tell us a bit about your background and how you got interested in wildlife.
I am a third generation biologist, so while I dabbled with becoming a writer and was a Peace Corps volunteer for a period of time, a curiosity and love of wildlife was ingrained from an early age. To me, visiting or living in wild places has always been necessary. The idea that I could create a life and profession by studying species like the black-footed ferret that allowed me to work in wild, remote places was a natural fit.
2. How did you come to work with black-footed ferrets (BFF’s)?
Graduating from the University of Montana, like many of my classmates I wanted to work in the mountains studying wolves or grizzly bears. Those were the images in movies, books and nature documentaries of the Wild West. It wasn’t until I met a biologist from a wildlife refuge in the prairies of remote central Montana that I was exposed to the idea of working in the Great Plains on what was, at the time, likely the world’s rarest carnivore. From that first summer experience I transitioned through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work on nearly every aspect of ferret recovery at one point or another, ranging from captive breeding to policy and public outreach.
3. In reading your book, Wild Again, I was struck by the fact that, unlike many other carnivore restoration projects, when working with BFF’s the PR problem is not with the predator itself but rather with its prey: prairie dogs. Can you discuss the difficulties associated with prairie dogs and BFF recovery?
Yes, I spend a great deal of time in the book talking about how difficult black-footed recovery has been. I even go so far as to say that in many ways, restoration of black-footed ferrets is more difficult than almost all other predator restoration attempts (including the Yellowstone wolf project) because of two key facts. First, we had very few ferrets to start with and had trouble even rearing the species in captivity. Second, even when we had success in making more ferrets in captivity, they are such a specialized predator that we had to find areas where prairie dogs still existed. Prairie dogs have been exterminated from over 95% of their former range. Exterminated is the correct term because it was a multi-million dollar effort by federal and state governments for over the past 100 years to eliminate this species. Even today, despite the fact that we know prairie dogs are a magnet for biodiversity on the Great Plains, we still have trouble convincing the public to tolerate them. In the west, many of our public lands and state wildlife agencies still subsidize and encourage poisoning of prairie dogs. It has been a long struggle to educate biologists and the public, and we still have a long way to go.
4. Another onerous and frightening issue for BFF’s is plague and much of your book describes the battles against this Old World disease. Can you briefly detail plague’s impact on BFF recovery and tell us of any new developments in this area?
Plague only arrived to North America around 1900 somewhere on the coast of California and has been slowly spreading east. Similar to the famous black death or bubonic plague, while humans are at less of a risk today because of modern antibiotic treatments, the bacterium is devastating North American wildlife. Prairie dogs and ferrets have no immunity to the disease and can exhibit complete population collapses when they are exposed to it. There are countless stories of wildlife biologists visiting a vibrant and active prairie dog town one week and the next, finding it completely vacant.
By 2004 plague had reached ferret reintroduction sites in South Dakota, the former stronghold of black-footed ferret recovery. When it arrived, similar to its impacts farther west, it decimated prairie dog populations. Only isolated pockets of prairie dogs or those treated with flea powder survived. The idea is that if we can control the fleas that transmit plague, we can mitigate its effect. Flea powder was and still is applied by the metric ton annually across the Great Plains to conserve priority prairie dog populations. There is a vaccine that has been developed and is currently being tested in the field, but it is a few years away from being approved for use. And even once it is ready, the reality is that we will need to continually apply the vaccine (it is in a pellet form so the prairie dogs would eat the vaccine that could be spread on the ground) for years into the future to alleviate the threat of plague. This has its parallel in weed management programs; because the disease can lie dormant in the soil for many years, we would need to remain vigilant in applying the vaccine to protect populations for the foreseeable future.
5. You were the scientist who realized that successful BFF reintroductions were most likely to occur on prairie dog colonies of at least 10,000 acres. As you point out, colonies that large on public lands are quite rare and/or already part of BFF recovery efforts. The option of releasing ferrets onto private land seems to be gaining traction. Are these efforts bearing fruit (or should I say, kits)?
Yes and no. I truly believe that private lands are key to ferret recovery, but we are only seeing modest growth/kit production at these sites. Similar to current reintroduction sites on federal and tribal lands that contain relatively small numbers of prairie dogs, much less than 10,000 acres, ferret populations will likely always be smaller on most private lands than on some of the sites in South Dakota, Wyoming and Arizona that meet that size criteria. This is not a bad thing, just a reality of the situation. The fact that more private landowners are opening up to reintroducing ferrets actually gives me hope given the history of prairie dog persecution over the past century. The ferret recovery coordinator recently used the analogy of managing ferret reintroduction sites and overall recovery using a “Christmas tree light” approach, where many small populations will need to be maintained, some of which will blink on and off over time while other, hopefully larger sites will maintain large “self-sustaining” populations of ferrets. Private landowners will certainly be needed if we are to expand ferret reintroduction to new sites and achieve this type of management strategy in the future.
6. What is your opinion of “recreational shooting” of prairie dogs?
While I am a gun owner, I really don’t see the point of shooting prairie dogs as it constitutes little more than target practice. In that sense, it devalues prairie dogs to little more than used tin cans or even worse – vermin. I, of course, don’t see prairie dogs in that light and have been working to change that mentality. On the other hand, when in a structured and managed way using guides, prairie dog shooting can bring money to rural communities without entirely extirpating prairie dogs such as occurring with plague. Thus while there are clear moral and biological problems (lead poisoning to scavenging raptors, disrupted social dynamics of prairie dogs, etc.), I do not lose as much sleep over prairie dog shooting as I do about the imminent ,and in my mind higher-priority, threats of plague, poisoning and lack of public support for prairie dog conservation.
7. In your opinion, what is the reason for the necessity of repeatedly reintroducing BBF’s into prime habitat before a certain critical mass is reached and the ferrets flourish and become self-sustaining? Is it a case of a minimum baseline population being needed until favorable environmental conditions cycle through?
That is a difficult question to which we don’t really have the whole answer, but is likely a factor of cycles of disease and availability of prairie dogs as prey. The key example here is Shirley Basin Wyoming, where ferrets were first reintroduced during the early 1990s. By the late 1990s the site was essentially abandoned for a number of years after poor population growth. Then in the early 2000s researchers resurveyed the area and discovered a surprisingly robust population of likely over 200 individuals. We think this had something to do with a plague outbreak in the early 1990s causing prairie dogs to decline to only a few remnant pockets, then when the disease went into an enzootic phase (plague often operates on a 5-10 year cycle where it will spread through a population during an epizootic outbreak causing mass mortality, then enter an enzootic phase where it lurks in the background at a less noticeable level) the prairie dog and ferret populations recovered. The lesson here is that persistence can pay off, but your chances of success improve greatly if you can mitigate the impact of plague and start with a sizeable prairie dog population.
8. In your book you criticize the approach of some environmental groups, referring to them as a “top down approach” and “heavy-handed protections” (i.e., the Endangered Species Act). As a field biologist, what would you like to see from defenders of BFF’s and prairie dogs?
My criticism of top-down approaches comes from what I mentioned earlier about how it is becoming increasingly clear that unlike wolves or bears that can survive in refugia within public lands, ferrets require active involvement of private landowners to achieve recovery success. One of the most common obstacles to involvement is fear (regardless of being rational or exaggerated) of the legal weight wielded around by some NGOs and federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act that could limit what they do in the future on their own land and on the public land they lease for grazing.
This is not to say that I do not think the ESA was and is one of the most important pieces of wildlife legislation ever put forward. It has done great things and is very useful in many cases including protecting the last few black-footed ferrets after the species was rediscovered. But it is increasingly clear that we have to take the teeth out of the ESA to make having ferrets and prairie dogs an easier pill to swallow for private landowners. Most readers likely don’t know that a majority of ferret populations currently in the wild are designated as “experimental nonessential”, thus not carrying the full weight of ESA protection. We need to find other ways to drive conservation of this species from the ground up, meaning private landowners and local communities, rather than top-down directives to place ferrets on the ground with little regard to local sentiment.
9. Again referencing your book, you wax lyrical about being out in the field, working in the stark beauty of the Great Plains. Is there an anecdote that sums up your time working with ferrets or one ferret in particular that made an impression on you?
The book is filled with stories of the people and places from Mexico to the Canadian border that are working to recovery black-footed ferrets, so it is hard to think of one anecdote that sums everything up. I think the words that sum up the attributes of those who work on this species are: vision, compassion, dedication, and perseverance. I think compassion and sentiment are the key works here. With all of the setbacks and obstacles when working to recover one of the most endangered species in the world, extending value to something that is not ourselves like the black-footed ferret will test the bounds of anyone. It is easy to become depressed or dismissive of the species. What I often come back to is the thrill of seeing black-footed ferrets in the wild. It has truly been a privilege to be one of the few people who has been able to see these animals in their natural habitat, and one of my favorite encounters was with a young male ferret I followed for a summer in the Conata Basin. He was a particularly bold little guy who was lone survivor of his cohort and who over the course of the summer got used to my pickup truck. I would depressingly go days without seeing any of the other ferrets in the Basin, but he was always there, each morning, waiting for his mother to return with food . I often think of the perseverance of that little guy out in the middle of the South Dakota prairie as a symbol of the small victories and progresses we are having to save the species. [You can see a video David shot of this ferret by clicking here.]
10. For people who want to help BFF’s, what do you suggest they do?
Many readers, particularly in the western US, have a family member, relative, or friend who despises prairie dogs. A first step could just be to have a conversation with that person about the root of their prejudice and some of the facts presented in the book and elsewhere about prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and other Great Plains wildlife. At the same time, there is continual rethinking within political and legal arenas regarding black-footed ferret reintroduction and prairie dogs conservation. For example, just this month the state of Colorado lifted a ban on reintroducing black-footed ferrets. Find out what the local status and issues in your area or state are regarding these species and reach out to a legislator or conservation group to show your concern and support. Public voices are urgently needed to drive policy that can help move recovery forward. Finally, a number of national parks, wildlife refuges and other organizations throughout the western US have undertaken or are considering black-footed ferret reintroduction. Many of them have active volunteer programs and outreach activities. So there are multiple ways to become involved and help with ferret conservation at the ground level.
11. Do you still have plans to do research on BFF’s and if so, what are the questions you’d like to clarify?
My most recent work has actually focused less on studying ferrets, and is directed toward finding new ways to combat plague and mitigate its effects on prairie dogs. The idea being that if you can keep enough prairie dogs around, the predator (i.e., black-footed ferret) will survive. I am really excited about the next phase of ferret recovery once a vaccine is developed and look forward to seeing how that will work in practice to conserve ferrets and prairie dogs. That said, I think the most pressing issues in ferret recovery are not the scientific ones regarding their biology, but human issues including the need to unravel long-held prejudices against their conservation. Addressing this concern was the primary rationale for writing this book, and I have high hopes that the great work done by many organizations and talented individuals will turn the tide and lead to much-needed increased public support for black-footed ferret and prairie dog conservation.
12. Your research has taken you from working on a small mammal to the largest land mammal, the African elephant. What has that research focused on?
While elephants are on the other end of the biological spectrum from ferrets and prairie dogs in many ways, the common theme is that they are both species that managers are trying to recover in the wild. Elephants were nearly extirpated from South Africa in the 1900s, and over the past 40 years have been reintroduced into many newly created parks and reserves. Interestingly, elephants do some odd things when they are translocated to these new reserves like gore endangered rhinos or attack people, so we are trying to shed light on the reasons behind these behaviors and how they can be limited. While the issues are slightly different, the intent is the same as for black-footed ferrets, to right a wrong and restore a species back to its former range.