Posted: March 23, 2009, 5 a.m. EDT
Manna Of The Prairie

By Travis Livieri
In 2008, sylvatic plague 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.

black-footed ferret carrying prairie dog
© Travis Livieri
It's rare to witness a black-footed ferret carrying a prairie dog home to its kits.

June 17, 2008
9:00 p.m., Tuesday
Norm and I are spotlighting for black-footed ferrets in Agate, despite the thunderstorm that crashed through at 3 a.m. It brought some rain, but the daytime temperature and breezes dried things out enough that we can gingerly navigate the prairie dog colonies without getting stuck.

9:45 p.m.
I get a call on the radio from Norm. He is spotlighting in The Twilight Zone again, and there are about a half dozen swift fox pups running around in his area. The aptly named swift fox also has reflective eyeshine when you cast the rays of a spotlight in its direction. Norm briefly describes one of the swift fox pups is carrying a fresh prairie dog in its mouth. This particular litter of fox lives on the prairie dog colony and makes prairie dogs a diet staple in addition to mice, small birds and even insects.

10:45 p.m.
I catch a glimpse of the familiar green eyeshine of a black-footed ferret about 200 yards away from me and not too far from where I caught female 05-176 last night. Carefully, I navigate the truck around a patch of prickly pear cactus to get closer to the BFF. Suspecting that I captured this BFF last night, I stop 30 yards away, lock the spotlight beam on the animal and reach for my binoculars. This is where the dye mark that I put on all captured BFFs comes in very handy. After adjusting the binoculars, I can clearly see a black mark on each side of the BFF’s neck, as it “periscopes” from the prairie dog burrow. As I suspected, she was female 05-176.

Even though I caught her last night for plague vaccination, I still record location data on her tonight. I creep the truck toward the prairie dog burrow she is in and reach into the passenger seat to find my GPS unit. 05-176 suddenly darts to another prairie dog burrow 10 yards away. I record the time, location coordinates from the GPS and identification of this BFF on my data sheet. At the edge of the spotlight beam I can see her in the other prairie dog burrow as I put the truck in gear and slowly pull off to leave her alone.

Out of the corner of my eye I see her grappling with something at the mouth of the prairie dog burrow. I immediately stop, hoping she is going to move her kits to another burrow, something that even I rarely get to see. It looks like she’s got a kit by the nape of the neck … but it’s actually a prairie dog! She killed a prairie dog and is dragging it back to the burrow where her kits are. I can count on one hand the number of times in 13 years that I’ve seen a BFF dragging a prairie dog.

Without moving my eyes I blindly grasp for my camera bag in the back seat and stumble out of the truck. As I approach her on foot I clumsily snap two pictures before she is out of sight. That prairie dog weighed as much as she did and yet that little female BFF had no problem running across the prairie with a weighty meal in her mouth. The pictures are out of focus, but I feel lucky to have even blurrily captured this rarely observed event.

June 18, 2008
5:00 a.m., Wednesday
The sun is rising. Norm and I caught and vaccinated three more BFFs last night, despite losing almost three hours to a dense fog. Sitting on the tailgate of the pickup, I watch the sun peek up over the horizon. Soon the prairie dogs will emerge from their burrows to begin their daytime activities. I think about Norm’s fox observation and BFF female 05-176. Last night I also saw badgers and coyotes. On a distant hillside I can see a ferruginous hawk perched, scanning the terrain for the first prairie dog of the morning. Fox, ferrets, badgers, coyotes and hawks — all here to feed on prairie dogs, the manna of the prairie.

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Reader Comments
Travis, I hope you've kept squeezin' them monkeys, lad.
Juicy, Bellingham, WA
Posted: 4/1/2009 5:12:50 PM
The prairie dogs are a crucial link in the food chain, and yet the ranchers would willingly break that chain. It would serve them right if they succeeded...and were overrun with mice, insects, and other pests!
Julie, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 3/27/2009 2:15:05 AM
My husband works out in SD and called me to ask me if there were wild ferrets. He also wanted to know if they were listed on the endangered list.
dena, rochester hills, MI
Posted: 3/26/2009 3:51:30 PM
Female 05-176, you go girl! When the kids are hungry it's important to bring home a big meal.
Bobbi, Kansas City, MO
Posted: 3/25/2009 5:50:03 PM
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