Posted: July 14, 2008, 5 a.m. EDT
Seeking BFFs At Heck Table

By Travis Livieri
Sylvatic plague has reached the Conata Basin, an area of South Dakota that was a previous safe haven for black-footed ferrets and one of the most successful sites for reintroducing the endangered black-footed ferret into the wild. Travis Livieri is one of the people working to save the black-footed ferrets, also known as BFFs.

July 8
11:53 p.m., Tuesday night
Off to a late start, and it rained a few hours ago. It is incredibly humid here right now. I’m having a tough time keeping my windshield free of moisture. It’s too wet to get off road effectively, so we’ll have to stick to the paved and gravel roads. It’s really frustrating to fight against a disease and weather at the same time.

July 9
4:58 a.m., Wednesday morning
Last night was a wash, literally. No BFFs found, mostly because of our limited access. The weather forecast is for hot and dry today, which should improve conditions for tonight.

July 9
9:03 p.m., Wednesday evening
The weather came through for us today and dried things out a bit. Tonight we’re in an area called Heck Table, some pretty remote and rough country. No cell phone service, 30 miles away from the nearest gas station, and 10 miles away from the nearest human dwelling.

9:21 p.m.
It’s not even very dark, and I find our first BFF of the night. When spotlighting we will spend the entire night driving over and over a specific area. Tonight I’m working a prairie dog colony that is approximately 700 acres in size, and I will drive around on it all night long, sweeping my light across the prairie for the familiar green eyeshine of a BFF. Some nights the BFFs are very active, and we see quite a few. Then some nights it’s a real struggle to find them. It has a little bit to do with moonlight, season and experience of the spotlighter.

10:47 p.m.
We’ve caught the BFF and just set a trap on another one. It’s a female, and she’s not being very cooperative. I’m sure she wants to get back to her kits below ground, so we do our best to process and release her quickly. The kits are getting big enough to appear above ground, but they’re almost impossible to trap right now. By mid-August the kits will be big enough to trap and vaccinate.

11:37 p.m.
There’s a storm system off to the south that’s producing quite a bit of lightning. It’s moving across northern Nebraska and will miss us, but this little front is pushing some wind to us. The stars are brilliant in the sky as usual. On the wind I can smell my favorite plant … fetid marigold. It’s a low-growing forb with small yellow flowers, similar in appearance to pineapple weed. It’s usually only found on prairie dog colonies. As my truck tires drive over it, the pungent smell wafts up into the air. The smell of a prairie dog colony.

July 10
4:13 a.m., Thursday morning
We caught and processed the second BFF but haven’t seen another one until now. That can make the middle of the night really long, but we did see quite a few other critters --pronghorn antelope, mule deer, a family of coyotes and one gigantic badger. It’s getting light in the eastern sky already.

5:15 a.m.
We found three BFFs since 4 a.m. but were unable to catch any of them. I’ll be back in this area again tonight. Two more BFFs vaccinated bringing the total to 45. Time for sleep.

July 10
9:02 p.m., Thursday evening
It’s a beautiful, warm and calm evening in the Heck Table area. I’m hoping we find more BFFs tonight in this area so I can move on to a new area.

11:45 p.m.
The wind starts to pick up, about 15 mph out of the north. We still haven’t seen any BFFs.

July 11
2:55 a.m., Friday morning
Finally! We find our first BFF of the night, a mom and two kits. The average litter size in the wild is three. She may have more kits below ground, but two is all we observed right now. We set a trap and catch her less than one hour later.

4:10 a.m.
We find another BFF, a female we caught yesterday. I can tell by the black dye marks I placed on her throat. After catching a BFF, I put a bit of hair dye on it in a unique pattern for easy visual identification. For instance, see the BFF video on this blog page and you will notice that she has black dots on her throat and neck that look unnatural. And what kind of dye do I use? Clairol Nice n’ Easy Natural Black no. 122. I could moonlight in a hair salon. Anyway, she also has two kits with her. I watch for a few minutes through binoculars to see if any more kits emerge.

5:11 a.m.
We caught and processed only one BFF tonight, which is frustrating, I was hoping for more. Off to sleep. We will be back to Heck Table in a few weeks and I hope we have better luck then.

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Seeking BFFs At Heck Table

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Reader Comments
Please keep up your courageous efforts! We are all pulling for you and the ferrets.
Trina, Middletown, DE
Posted: 7/19/2008 1:28:00 AM
Black footed ferrets are beautiful animals, and thank you, Travis Livieri for caring so much about them.
Susie, Fort Worth, TX
Posted: 7/15/2008 4:21:36 PM
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