Though the feds
insist the Journal article was not a matter of concern, funding for further
ferret research has been withdrawn from the proposed 1981 Fish and Wildlife
Service budget. That was discovered in January of this year by a seven-member
organization called the Ferret Recovery Team. (Several endangered species have
teams of government and private experts who have a particular interest in the
species and provide advice for its welfare. The Ferret Recovery Team is just
such a group.)
In February, to
satisfy my curiosity, I visited with a group of Fish and Wildlife Service
administrators who assembled in a Washington office to explain the decision to
stop ferret research. The chief spokesman was Harold O'Connor, deputy associate
director of federal assistance, a position that puts him second in command of
endangered-species programs and thus makes him one of the architects of ferret
policies. Much of the conversation was semantic, having to do with what word or
phrase best described what had happened to the ferret program. The Fish and
Wildlife people thought that expressions like "end," "abandon"
and "close down" were misleading, despite the fact that their budget
proposal had used the word "terminate." Glen Smart, an
endangered-species staff research specialist, suggested "de-emphasize."
This was accepted as the best and most accurate word.
was then explained. Only $66,000 had been allotted for ferrets for 1980,
because funds were very tight—there was only about $1 million available for all
endangered-species research. Ferret research had to be de-emphasized. Previous
investigation had turned up a lot of valuable information, and it now seemed
time to phase out that part of the program. De-emphasize.
"But the fact
is that after this budget cut you won't have money for a ferret man," I
suggested. "You won't really be in the business anymore."
No, that wasn't
really so. All over the land Fish and Wildlife agents would be thinking about
ferrets, would be ready to protect any ferrets somebody else located. Hillman
would be reassigned to work with wolves in Minnesota, but the service would
still have his expertise and he could be sent back to South Dakota in a matter
of hours if there were any hot ferret leads.
All this seemed
reasonable, if not ideal, until later, when a long-time service friend said
informally, "You probably didn't know, but Hillman has resigned. He's
leaving as of March 1."
"What was all
that about his being reassigned and being held in a state of ready-alert to do
"I don't know,
but he's quit. Not just the ferret job but the whole service. He is going to do
research for a private conservation outfit."
even when one is inclined in their favor, are sometimes hard to love.
Hillman, in his
final week as the last of the federal ferret men, was not at all bitter, but he
was outspoken. "I could see this coming," he said, "Washington
getting restless about their commitment to the species. I'd still be here if I
thought they were really going to back it, but I didn't want to stay on as a
kind of token. Obviously I care about these animals. I'm going to stay in touch
and maybe I can do more from the outside than I could on the inside."