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Fanning the public outrage was the fact that in 1964 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to compile a list of endangered species, creatures who were now so few in number that their survival was in question. The ferret headed the list of endangered mammals. Environmentalists and ferret students immediately raised the obvious point—that it was hypocritical, to say the least, for one branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the ferret endangered while another branch of the same agency was busy stuffing poisoned grain down prairie-dog holes.
South Dakota became the focal point of this controversy. A likely reason why people had continued to see a few ferrets in South Dakota was that for a long time there had been less prairie-dog control in that state than elsewhere, because much of the western part of South Dakota was given over to Indian reservations. After World War II, however, Indian ranchers demanded the same kind of prairie-dog control their white counterparts had long enjoyed. A lot of the dogs were subsequently controlled in South Dakota.
Environmentalists insisted that these operations should cease or be curtailed, generally because poisoning was bad, and specifically to save the ferret. Ranchers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and state and federal exterminating agencies heatedly rejoined that while they wished the ferret well, it was unfair to force them to give up poisoning prairie dogs—and suffer the economic consequences of doing so—just because some animal of no known value that nobody ever saw might be accidentally harmed.
Several years of bitter wrangling and bureaucratic infighting followed. In 1972, in what was regarded as a considerable triumph for environmentalists, President Nixon signed an order forbidding the use of 1080 by anyone—feds, state agencies or private parties.
After the 1080 ban the federal government got out of prairie-dog poisoning in South Dakota. In fact, very little control work was done there by anyone for five years. But in 1978 a new poison, zinc phosphide, was allowed to be used by the state of South Dakota. It effectively kills prairie dogs; however, it is more time-consuming to use and thus more expensive than 1080 was. As a result, the South Dakota prairie-dog population has indisputably increased in recent years, and there is agitation to go back to the good old days of 1080. South Dakota applied to the federal government for permission to use 1080 on limited areas in the western part of the state. But two months ago the Environmental Protection Agency denied the petition on the basis that there were "viable substitutes."
Earlier, however, while attempting to settle the prairie-dog poisoning dispute, the Fish and Wildlife Service organized a project designed to find some ferrets and develop ways to protect and increase the population. That was why Don Fortenberry had been sent to South Dakota to do field research in 1960. Conrad Hillman, a graduate student from the University of South Dakota, was also working on ferrets at the time, and the two cooperated closely until 1972, when Fortenberry was reassigned to make an impact study of the proposed Alaska "Wilderness Lands" bill. Hillman then became the federal ferret man, the only one in the world.
By checking reports from private landowners and state game officials and spending thousands of hours looking for ferret signs, Fortenberry and Hillman had been able to locate 71 of the animals during the first eight years of their study. Included were 38 young ferrets found in 11 litters. This was a larger number than anyone had thought would be found, and in 1971 plans were made to live-trap some of the animals in the hope of breeding them in captivity at the endangered-species laboratory the Fish and Wildlife Service maintains in Patuxent, Md. The endangered-species specialists had had considerable success breeding such rare creatures as whooping cranes and masked bobwhites, and because weasels in general (for example, the mink) breed well in captivity, it was assumed the black-footed ferrets would do likewise.
Fortenberry and Hillman therefore trapped six ferrets, four of them females, in Mellette County, S. Dak. The plan was to hold the animals for several weeks of acclimatization in South Dakota and then fly them to Patuxent. However, before they ever got to Maryland all four females died. Reports from the Fish and Wildlife Service say only that the animals died. That the ferrets' fate is dealt with in such extreme brevity is understandable in light of what occurred.
"What happened was that we were responsible for the deaths of those animals," says Hillman. "It was decided that the ferrets should be inoculated against distemper. Everyone agreed. There were two choices of vaccine. We thought and talked about it a lot—and we made the wrong choice. We sent the bodies to Cornell University for examination. The report was, essentially, that we had given them a fatal dose of distemper."
Despite this disaster, the two surviving males were sent to Patuxent in November 1971, where they were later joined by a female, trapped in 1972, and a pair, presumably mates, taken in 1973. Colonies of European and Siberian ferrets were also established at the laboratory to serve as surrogate study animals.