CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming continues to play an important role in the effort to recover black-footed ferrets. Over 30 years ago black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct, but a colony was re-discovered on the Pitchfork Ranch. Now the ranch is hosting field trials to test a wildlife vaccine developed by the U.S. Geological Survey for sylvatic plague, which is a deadly and exotic disease that impacts wildlife and occasionally people and their pets. Sylvatic plague can be especially deadly for prairie dogs, which are the endangered black-footed ferret’s primary prey.
Approximately 500 black-footed ferrets live in the wild now, but ferret recovery efforts are hampered in-part by plague outbreaks. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is teaming up with 24 other states, federal agencies, tribes and non-governmental organizations to test a potential sylvatic plague vaccine. Testing has been going at 29 sites in seven states over the past few years.
“We are proud to continue to play a key role in the effort to help black-footed ferrets recover. We thank the owners of the Pitchfork Ranch for their support of this project and for all of the partners that are working on behalf of ferrets,” said Scott Talbott, Director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “If it proves to be effective, this vaccine has potential to have a positive impact in targeted situations where we want to help stabilize prairie dog populations and reduce the threat of sylvatic plague.”
The research into the sylvatic plague vaccine is ongoing and there are not conclusive results from the field at this time. Results from laboratory studies have been completed and showed that the vaccine was effective at preventing infection with sylvatic plague. While the vaccine would not be implemented statewide, it would provide additional assurances of healthy prairie dog populations at locations that in turn would increase the success of introduced ferret populations.
Wyoming is also waiting for a final rule that would make the state a potential special management area for the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. This would ease the regulatory constraints of the Endangered Species Act. Any introductions would continue to be completely voluntary and landowners and their neighbors would be protected if any ferrets were accidentally killed on their lands.
Today, several partners gathered at the Pitchfork Ranch to explain to the public more about the sylvatic plague vaccine research and about the recovery efforts underway for ferrets. If the 10(j) rule change goes into effect, landowners will have the opportunity to volunteer to host an introduction of black-footed ferrets and have the site evaluated for its suitability for the species.