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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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Ed Brigham is the director of regional activities of the National Audubon Society. Until last year he was a member of the Ferret Recovery Team, the only one who wasn't a public employee. "Whatever they call it—terminate or de-emphasize—I think the Fish and Wildlife Service has made a bad mistake," he says. "The ferret is the first major endangered species they have given up on. Research possibilities do remain—they were spelled out in the recovery plan we submitted to the service in the summer of 1978—but nothing much was done to implement them. You get the feeling that people in Washington are interested in things that promise quicker results and better publicity. I'm afraid other agencies and other people—say, those pushing to use 1080 again—are going to take this as a sign that there is no good reason to pay much attention to this animal any longer. I have to think that the ferret has suddenly become much more endangered than it was before this decision was made."

Having terminated and thus de-emphasized conversations with public officials, I drove out to the South Dakota countryside looking for a prairie-dog town where, according to Anderson, a ferret might have been seen a few years ago. The wind was again whipping snow and dust across the prairie, but not even in a 25¢-against-a-million-dollar-jackpot way was this a ferret-hunting expedition. It was simply that a prairie-dog town provided a better environment for thinking about ferrets than federal office buildings and laboratories do.

When, 13 years before, Fortenberry and I had sat in a similar place, we had talked in a self-mocking way about what a conventionally worthless thing a black-footed ferret is. They make up such a minuscule portion of the animal kingdom that they are of almost no ecological consequence, even to prairie dogs. If, as some environmentalists think, protecting the diversity of the world's gene pool is important, well, ferret genes are in good supply from the plentiful and almost identical European and Siberian species. So far as humans are concerned, we've never, except for the Sioux robe makers, had any practical use for the ferret. We have known it so briefly and imperfectly that it isn't a creature with historic or legendary associations for us; it doesn't conjure up atavistic remembrances of things past, the way the wolf does. Ferrets have never pleased or stimulated us esthetically, as the whooping crane has, and they probably never will, because they are more or less invisible. Fortenberry and I discussed all of this, but we couldn't get around the fact that we were where we were that night and that others had and would be in the same sort of improbable place for the same insubstantial purpose.

It would be tidy, but sheer contrivance, to claim that 13 years later, while kicking frozen clods in an empty prairie-dog town, these paradoxical matters sorted themselves out in a blinding flash of insight. About all that did occur to me was the notion that it wasn't a bad way to spend a few hours, that I had spent some of the best parts of my life looking, in a sense, for ferrets. So has everyone else I know.

A very common, in fact almost definitive, characteristic of our species is that we often become passionately concerned about things of no intrinsic value. Caring deeply about paintings and houseplants, honor and free speech, the outcome of ball games is not unlike caring about ferrets. Individually—and collectively—we have a lot of Golden Fleece interests. We can, if circumstances require, sacrifice some of them without much suffering, but at the same time we know that without some of them life would be brutal and almost unbearable.

Perhaps we are now as a nation too poor to continue a public search-and-rescue operation for ferrets. If so, the general quality of life won't be endangered. In fact, if the last ferret should shuffle off this mortal coil (or already has), there will be no practical reverberations. Yet there are real limits to how much of this sort of cost-accounting we can afford. The cost, as well as the considerable glory of being human, is that now and then we must go out into prairie-dog towns and look for ferrets. No ferret will ever come looking for us.

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