Bill Sniffin: Hey Phoenix Zoo, Those Ferrets Are From Meeteetse, Wyoming

This past spring, I noticed that Wyomings Black-Footed Ferret is a rock star at the Phoenix Zoo. In fact, you might think the elusive little critter was native to Arizona. Not so.

Bill Sniffin

July 19, 20215 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Bill Sniffin, publisher

This past spring, I noticed that Wyoming’s Black-Footed Ferret is a rock star at the Phoenix Zoo.  In fact, you might think the elusive little critter was native to Arizona. 

Not so.

Here is the real story.

An obscure place in the Cowboy State was the host of one of the most impressive recovery stories of an apparently extinct animal that has occurred in America over the last several decades.

The famous naturalist and artist John James Audubon first painted and published reports of the critter around 1846.  In 1979, the Black Footed Ferret was declared extinct in the world.  

In 1981, Lucille Hogg’s pet dog Shep dragged home a carcass of an unusual animal at their ranch home near Meeteetse.  Lucille was a fixture in Meeteetse at her Lucille’s Café.  She and husband John took the odd critter to a local taxidermist to talk about possibly getting it mounted. 

The taxidermist took one look at it and after a long pause said he needed to make a phone call.  When he returned he said this animal was not only an endangered species, but it was extinct! 

Wyoming Game and Fish officials descended enmasse on Meeteetse and the Hogg home. The hunt was on for the rest of the animals.

This was an amazing coincidence involving a pesky dog and some folks who thought they had found a really odd-looking animal.  Thankfully that taxidermist was alert enough to contact the Game and Fish.

Our local newspaper in Lander along with most newspapers in Wyoming ran news stories and ads in the late 1970s trying to locate any colonies of the elusive nocturnal animal. None were found. 

An animal called a “ferret” is common in America as a pet. But these critters are not native. They are originally from Europe. The only local ferret in America is the Black-Footed Ferret, which originally roamed all over North America.

In a column last year, I wrote about how reliant the American Indians were on the buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter.  Well, in this case, the prairie dog is the buffalo to the Black-Footed Ferret. The latter’s entire existence is based on killing and eating prairie dogs. 

One Game and Fish biologist described the relationship as the prairie dog providing “room and board” for the ferrets, since ferrets live in abandoned prairie dog towns. One study showed that an adult female Black-Footed Ferret and her litter of kits will kill and eat over 1,000 prairie dogs a year for their diet. 

This ferret looks a lot like a mink but the two animals are not related. Our Ferret has a close relative in Europe called the Polecat, not to be confused with the expression “doggone polecat” to describe a bad guy in old-time Wyoming.

Bob Oakleaf and Andrea Orabona, non-game biologists of the G&F, worked on the recovery project, which is featured in a video on YouTube. 

Back in the 1980s, G&F staffers tried to locate the rest of the pack of ferrets, using an old-style trap and then some huge hand-held antennas. G&F staff walked around trying to track the ferrets, which had radio collars installed on them.

Ultimately they found over 50 of the ferrets and the small colony seemed to be doing well.

But this did not last long.

The reason the Black-Footed Ferret was declared extinct in 1979 was because of a disease called plague, which had been wiping out prairie dogs and killing ferrets at the same time.

By  1985, the number of Meeteetse ferrets was down to 18 and the decision was made to capture all of them and put them in a captive facility to prevent further deaths leading to extinction.

The initial facility was in Sybille Canyon. As the G&F was able to breed more and more ferrets, other places around the country got involved, including Colorado facilities and the Phoenix Zoo. 

Today, ferrets have been re-released to the outdoors. A big event was held in Meeteetse on July 26, 2016 where the critters were re-introduced to their original home area.  There are now more than 1,500 ferrets running loose in the region and they seem to be thriving. Not good news for prairie dogs, though. 

Meanwhile, I even bought a tee shirt at the Phoenix Zoo, which was emblazoned with big photos of the Black-Footed Ferret and a big logo for the zoo. 

I cannot blame Arizonans for wanting to take some credit for this amazing survival success story. But in the brief information piece about the ferret, Wyoming was hardly mentioned and the location where they were found was spelled “Meteetse,” rather than the correct spelling of Meeteetse.  Oh well.

Over the years the zoo has provided over 500 Black-Footed Ferrets, which have been re-introduced into the wild. So, I grudgingly have to give them a little bit of credit after all.

Not sure I will ever wear that tee shirt back here in Wyoming, though.

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.