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For a period in the mid-1960s I was a journalistic observer of and commentator on the federal endangered-species program that was then being organized to aid animals thought to be in imminent danger of extinction. Thus I happened to spend a few cold days in the fall of 1967 in western South Dakota with a field biologist named Don Fortenberry, who was at the time 35 years old. He had been assigned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find and learn something about the black-footed ferret, which at the time was regarded as the least numerous and thus most endangered mammal in the United States. It still holds that dubious distinction.
There were—and are—more assumptions than facts available about the black-footed ferret, a member of the weasel family. Thirteen years ago one guess was that there were no more than one or two hundred of the animals in the U.S. They had once inhabited, always in sparse numbers, most of the Great Plains, and a few could still have been living anywhere in that vast region. However, most reports of their continuing existence came from the prairie and butte country of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. Even if the ferret had been numerous there, Fortenberry would have had a formidable problem spotting any, this being a very elusive and reclusive beast. Invariably associated with prairie dogs, the ferrets conduct most of their activities, predatory and otherwise, underground in the mazelike burrows dug by those communal rodents. Also, ferrets are nocturnal and seldom surface except in the dark.
The scarcity of ferrets further complicated Fortenberry's work. On the basis that the baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bath water, he had to forgo many standard search techniques. Running trap lines through prairie-dog towns might have produced a few specimens—weasels, as a family, being easy to snare—but there was the worry that ferrets thus killed might be the last ones left.
Fortenberry (and others who have followed him as ferret researchers) therefore proceeded cautiously. By day he would examine prairie-dog towns for surface signs of ferrets. But the ground in this region is hard, doesn't take good impressions and, therefore, is poorly suited for sign reading. Such signs as are made don't last long because of the scouring effect of the prairie wind. Also, prairie dogs are notable excavators, forever rearranging the earth in the vicinity of their tunnels, and that effaces signs. So Fortenberry depended principally on nighttime searching. He would take a four-wheel-drive vehicle to a spot with a good view of a prairie-dog town and from time to time through the night sweep it with a searchlight on the chance that he might spot a ferret, or at least its eyeshine, a brief spark of peculiar greenish reflection. Among animals customarily found in prairie-dog towns, only the eyeshine of the long-tailed weasel is similar to that of the ferret.
On the last night that I went searching with Fortenberry, we set up about dusk on the property of an obliging rancher. The prairie-dog town we were watching covered about 75 acres, extending from a gulch toward a solitary butte under which we parked. It was a dark, overcast November night, without moon or stars. A sharp wind out of the northwest rattled the dry prairie weeds and drove before it a lot of gritty dust and a few grains of snow almost as abrasive. Huddled in the cab of the truck, bundled in goose-hunting clothes, we drank coffee and talked about ferrets, politics in the Interior Department, world affairs, ball games and other things two men might be expected to discuss when they have to sit up all night. Every five minutes or so Fortenberry would play the spotlight across the dog town. Quite often it caught something. Jackrabbits, because of distortion caused by the light and distance, looked pale and as big as cocker spaniels. Two coyotes, a raccoon and a yellow plains porcupine of vaguely prehistoric appearance stood at different times transfixed by the beam. I found all this more interesting than did Fortenberry, who had already seen perhaps too much of prairie night life. Nevertheless, each time the light went on he would strain forward toward the windshield in anticipation. It was a compulsive reaction illustrating the power of faint hope over high probability—rather like casually buying a 25¢ chance in a million-dollar lottery but getting edgy on the day of the drawing.
Just before dawn we both thought we saw a suggestive glint of reflected light, but it disappeared before either of us could speak. Fortenberry worked the area over and over with the beam, and after the sky became light we went out and searched the ground for signs. There were none, and Fortenberry said, "It's easy to see spooks when you do this work." We talked about things mystics say they have seen in a single point of flame.
The flick of green light may have been the reflection of something more than wishful imagining, because Fortenberry did find a ferret later on not far from where we had spent that night. I was long gone by then.
My ferret-hunting expedition was a classic non-event. However, I have thought often of that night, and I think I recall it more clearly than I do many other more conventionally eventful ones. Certainly, the trophy-hunting possibility helped make it memorable—the faint chance of seeing, and thus figuratively claiming, something of extreme rarity. Beyond that, there was a powerful surrealistic quality to that night, as if some elemental force was floating around in the dust and snow, mixed in with pale rabbits and yellow porcupines, a force having less to do with ferrets than with men—the two of us and a good many others of our species whose interests Fortenberry and I, in a way, represented.
Though my direct involvement with endangered species subsequently declined, I remained interested in them, and particularly in the ferret. During the 1970s, when things seemed to be looking up for many of the hard-pressed animals—the whooping crane, the masked bobwhite, the everglade kite, the sea otter, the eastern timber wolf—there never was good news, or much news of any sort, about the ferret. Ecological and political problems relating to the animal seemed to grow more complicated. Some months ago, I learned through reports and conversations that the federal agencies had come to an administrative and biological dead end with the species. This suggested that if anyone wanted to ask questions or say anything about this elusive mammal in any but purely historical terms, it might be well to do so soon. So 13 years after my night on the prairie with Don Fortenberry, I returned, in a sense, to the ferret.
Evolutionists generally agree that the ferret, as a distinct member of the weasel family (the Mustelidae—a clan that includes skunks, badgers, minks, otters, wolverines and a lot of lesser beasts called simply "weasels"), originated in the Mediterranean basin. They are lithe, elongated carnivores especially well equipped to pursue tunnel-dwelling rodents—in the case of the black-footed ferret, those rodents are prairie dogs, who not only build the ferrets' homes for them but serve as their dinner as well. Thousands of years ago these abilities came to the attention of human beings in the Old World who caught some ferrets and ever since have bred and kept them as hunting aids, particularly for rousting rabbits out of their burrows. The descendants of these animals, as thoroughly domesticated as the dog or cat, are known as European ferrets. They are common in this country as laboratory animals and even as household pets.