In green circles it is widely held that humans are responsible for most of the significant environmental changes and that the condition of wildlife is a good measure of the consequences of those changes. This is generally true, but an important qualifier is often overlooked. There is not a single, universal wildlife barometer but rather innumerable ones (at least as many as there are species of animals), and many of them give different, often contradictory, readings.
For example, 200 years ago mountain lions were fairly common east of the Mississippi. Now only a relative handful are left because people intentionally exterminated them and at the same time were busy altering their habitat. On the other hand, woodchucks are much more plentiful than they were when Europeans arrived in those parts. The reason is that this species does better in open, grassy and brushy country than it does in heavy forests of the sort that originally covered much of the eastern half of the continent. During the past few centuries, while clearing and rearranging the land for their own purposes, people inadvertently created millions of acres of splendid new woodchuck habitat: meadows, fencerows, highway berms, gardens, lawns and the like. If the condition of wildlife is to be used as a barometer of environmental quality—good or bad—the question needs to be asked: Good or bad for whom?
There are two categories of beasts that, like the woodchuck, have prospered because of recent human works. The first and most ecologically significant one is made up of hardy, adaptable species that exploit approximately the same resources we do. Among many other species, carp, badgers, beavers, Canada geese, crows, gray squirrels, assorted mice and rats, opossums, raccoons, sparrows, a number of insects and other invertebrates are not simply holding their own, but they are increasing their numbers and range because they like, biologically speaking, what we have done to the countryside.
In the second beneficiary class are creatures that in the very recent past were thought to be so rare or in such imminent danger of extinction that we humans were inspired to make a massive national effort to assist them. Among the most prominent species in this category are alligators, bald eagles, condors, masked bobwhites, red wolves, peregrine falcons and whooping cranes. All of which, as species, are faring much better now than they were 25 years ago.
In this regard, the most spectacular and unexpected turnaround has been made by the black-footed ferret (SI, Oct. 13, 1980). These weasellike residents of the prairie regions are still among the rarest of North American mammals, but during the past six years the survival prospects of the species have dramatically improved and may be stronger now than at any previous time in this century.
Black-footed ferrets (hereafter BFFs) are naturally nocturnal, semisubterranean creatures that inhabit the tunnels dug by prairie dogs and prey exclusively, so far as anyone knows, on their hosts. In consequence, BFFs have never been much studied in the wild or, for that matter, often seen. In fact, they were not known to science until 1851, when John James Audubon collected the first specimen. During the next 50 years, occasional ferret signs and carcasses were found, but during this century reports of the animals became increasingly infrequent. It was—and still is—assumed that they declined drastically as a result of farming, land development and, especially, because of public poisoning programs aimed at eradicating prairie dogs. (Western agriculturists dislike these rodents, which compete with cattle for grass and dig up rangeland.)
In the mid-1960s, the BFF was placed at the head of the list of endangered North American mammals. Federal biologists were dispatched to South Dakota—whence had come the best and most recent BFF reports—to look for them. The scientists found so few animals that it was decided to live-trap some of the remaining BFFs and send them to the federal Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., where it was hoped the ferrets would breed in captivity. From 1971 to '73, nine BFFs were caught in South Dakota and shipped to Maryland. All died in captivity and left no offspring. Thereafter, no more ferrets were found in South Dakota or anyplace else, though federal, state and private researchers hunted for them throughout the Great Plains for the rest of the decade. By 1980, many zoologists thought the species might be extinct.
This assumption, though a reasonable one, was false. In September 1981, near the village of Meeteetse in northwestern Wyoming, a ranch dog presented his owners with a BFF carcass.
Immediately, assorted BFF researchers descended on the Meeteetse area. By 1984 they had, astonishingly, found 129 BFFs living in a 7,400-acre tract of isolated agricultural land.
Along with a great deal of scientific activity, the rediscovery of living BFFs in Wyoming touched off a political dispute. Previously, research on endangered species had been supervised by the U.S. Department of the Interior through its subsidiary, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This graveled—and still does-some state authorities, who feel the feds are prone to use such projects as a wedge to force their way onto other people's administrative turf. In 1981, when the Meeteetse BFFs were found, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior was James Watt, who despite his national office was an ardent states' rights man and fiercely opposed to "creeping federalism." It was decided that while both state and federal officials would be members of a black-footed ferret recovery team, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would be the "lead agency," that is, the ultimate authority.