Posted: July 21, 2008, 5 a.m. EDT
BFFs, Barbed Wire & Bigwigs
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.
© Travis Livieri
This female black-footed ferret is carefully released after being processed by the team that's working to vaccinate this endangered species against plague.
We’re off to a good start tonight, and several BFFs are located not long after sunset. Tonight I have Norm from the Forest Service and a graduate student, Dave, from the University of Missouri working with me. Norm and I have worked together since the BFF project started here in Conata Basin. He knows this country like no one else.
It’s been a busy night, and we’ve captured nine BFFs, of which four received their booster shot. I need to collate the data this morning for a meeting at 9 a.m. among all the agencies and partners.
The meeting is over, and I’m headed off to bed finally. The dusting crews have applied insecticide to almost 5,000 acres of prairie dog colonies, and my crew has captured and vaccinated 52 BFFs (17 male and 35 female) to date. I’ve been awake for 30 hours and crash into bed.
It’s a beautiful night for a dog-and-pony show. My partners from the Fish & Wildlife Service have brought out a few high-ranking officials from several state wildlife agencies to see BFFs. They spend some time with me, bumping around the prairie and getting up close and personal with BFFs. I hope this experience makes an impression on them and helps us release BFFs in their states. One of the fellows is originally from my home state, Wisconsin, and we attended the same college (UW-Stevens Point) 20 years apart.
We process a BFF caught by Dave, and it’s actually a kit. This is somewhat early in the season to actually catch a kit, thus she must be a bold one.
It ends up being another good night, with seven BFFs captured. A few of those are recaptures for their second shot. I’m tired and need some sleep. I have another meeting today and more bigwigs tonight.
I had almost five hours of sleep today and that’s usually enough for me to function normally. I’ve got someone from Washington, D.C., with me for a few hours tonight, and the BFFs make a tremendous impression upon her. Hopefully that translates into political support and funding. She also gets to see a litter of swift fox, pronghorn and a few other critters.
The bigwigs are gone, and Norm and I have seen and captured a few BFFs. We’re working in a new area called Agate and hope to be here for several nights. This is the site where we originally released BFFs in 1996. It seems like only yesterday. In 1996 I never dreamed Conata Basin would take off the way it did and become such an endangered species success story. Then again, I never dreamed we would ever have plague as well as political pressure to poison prairie dogs.
Eleven hours of sleep can do wonders for a person. We’re back out in Agate, and I’m anxious to catch a lot of BFFs tonight until … [see next entry]
Some of these pastures and prairie dog colonies have old piles of barbed wire from fences past. Because of all the rain the grass and forbs are quite high and can conceal these barbed wire piles.
High grass + pile of barbed wire + spinning drive shaft = trouble.
I now have barbed wire wrapped around the drive shaft of my pickup. It’s an ugly scene. I spend the next two hours under my pickup truck, mosquitoes buzzing around my head, with a pair of fencing pliers cutting the barbed wire off the shaft. It’s wrapped tightly, and this stuff doesn’t cut very easily. I wouldn’t wish this mess on anyone. Luckily, while my truck is incapacitated, I don’t have any BFFs in a trap.
Norm calls on the radio to alert me of a BFF he’s captured. I’m finished with my barbed wire mess and start driving toward Norm, but I hear a clunking noise. I spend another 10 minutes fixing my muffler supports before I resume driving to Norm. He has a female BFF and her kits are nearby but too small to capture. She’s also unchipped, which means I did not capture her last fall and put a PIT tag microchip in her. In August we can hopefully recapture her and she will get a PIT tag. For now she gets a unique dye marking; left neck, left hip and right hip, which will allow us to identify her again in August.
BFF activity is starting to pick up, and I have several traps out, but there is something in the air…the smell of rain. I can see the clouds moving in but they shouldn’t actually get here until sunrise.
I continue to find BFFs as the clouds build and distant lightning portends a wet morning. I’m confident the rain will hold off until after sunrise and we can finish our work tonight. Crack! That bolt of lightning was way too close, and this storm is moving faster than I expected. We pick up our traps and call it a night. We’re up to 57 BFFs captured and processed. We’ll be back at it when the rain stops and the ground dries.
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BFFs, Barbed Wire & Bigwigs