KINGMAN - The black-footed ferret continues to thrive more than 13 years after being released into the Aubrey Valley near Seligman.
Arizona Game and Fish recently wrapped up its fall ferret spotlighting effort, where dozens of volunteers spent several nights searching for the adorable and endangered prairie animal.
From Oct. 1-5, 46 ferrets were captured, 32 of which were caught for the first time. The count was the same earlier this year and in 2007, which shows that the ferret population is stabilizing, said Jeff Corcoran, a wildlife specialist for Game and Fish and the project's supervisor.
The spotlighting works like this: Volunteers meet at the ferret field house in Seligman in the evening, then head out to the command post several miles down Route 66. From there, the teams, equipped with spotlights, traps and other tools, head out into the darkness.
The teams use powerful spotlights to sweep across the fields. The first pass of a spotlight will pique the ferret's curiosity. The animal will then pop its head out of its burrow on the second and third pass, alerting volunteers to its presence. The emerald glow of the ferret's eyes in the light make them easy to spot.
The spotlighting efforts, which take place twice a year in March and October, are scheduled around the full moon because the animals seem to be more active at that time, Corcoran said.
The volunteers then track the ferret to its burrow and place a trap at the entrance, plugging the surrounding burrow holes with giant soda cups to increase the likelihood of the ferret popping out of the particular burrow and into the trap.
The traps, which don't harm the ferrets, are covered in a burlap sack to trick the animals into thinking that it's simply a continuation of their tunnel. It's deceitful, yes, but a safe, humane way of catching the elusive ferret.
Those who process the ferrets back at the command post go out of their way, in fact, to minimize the stress on the animal, which includes keeping them warm and calm until they undergo examination. The ferret is sedated with isoflurane, an anesthetic, which knocks the ferret out for about 10 minutes.
Volunteers work quickly to see if the ferret has been captured before, and they insert a "pit tag" if it hasn't. The pit tag is inserted using a needle.
The ferret then undergoes a brief physical examination to take its vitals before it is placed in a pet carrier to be released back into the burrow it was taken from. The ferret is given a piece of prairie dog meat for its trouble.
Many of the volunteers who spend all night searching for, capturing and releasing the ferrets come from local universities and wildlife groups. David Dellisola, a student at Arizona State University studying to be a wildlife ecologist, said the experience was a great way for him to learn about wildlife management techniques.
The effort is done on both public and private lands with the cooperation of local landowners, including the Navajo Indians. Residents have an interest in keeping the ferrets healthy, since the ferrets eat the prairie dogs that can wreak havoc on the land.
Ferrets are one of the main predators of prairie dogs.
"They are so much smaller than their prey, but they are still able to kill them," Corcoran said.
The black-footed ferret is nocturnal and needs prairie dogs to survive, not only to serve as their food source but for housing as well. The ferret is opportunistic and lives in the burrows dug by other animals. A typical ferret can eat more than 100 prairie dogs in a year, making up about 90 percent of its diet.
The black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct until a small population was found in 1981. Disease killed all but 18 ferrets, which were captured in Wyoming in 1985 for a captive breeding program.
The ferrets were reintroduced into the wild in the Aubrey Valley in 1996, and biologists documented the first wild-born ferrets five years later.
While those working on the project love seeing new ferrets, recapturing those who have already been tagged can be just as valuable.
"It's good if we get some that's already been tagged because that shows long-term survival," said Jennifer Cordova, wildlife technician.
The black-footed ferret is North America's only native ferret, unlike the domesticated ferret, which is from Europe and an entirely different species.
The Aubrey Valley site is the fourth reintroduction site in the United States.