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Missing and presumed to be dead
Bil Gilbert
October 13, 1980
If the black-footed ferret is a valid case in point, the difference between endangered and extinct may be, in the end, money
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October 13, 1980

Missing And Presumed To Be Dead

If the black-footed ferret is a valid case in point, the difference between endangered and extinct may be, in the end, money

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Though the feds insist the Journal article was not a matter of concern, funding for further ferret research has been withdrawn from the proposed 1981 Fish and Wildlife Service budget.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.

Ferret de-emphasis 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 ferret work?"

"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."

Federal officials, 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."

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