Friday, October 23, 2009
Our Home And Native Land: Canada Welcomes Back Black-Footed Ferrets

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 about to be released ©Travis Livieri
Parks Canada staff Pat, Katherine and Cheryl prepare to release a black-footed ferret at dusk in Grasslands National Park.

October 2, 2009
8:00 a.m., Friday
I squint my eyes and reach for my sunglasses in the bright morning sun. With nothing but blue sky overhead and the faintest wisp of wind in my face, I join about 30 other people gathered at the Park headquarters to talk about the logistics and details of today’s black-footed-ferret release. This is the meeting for release captains and lieutenants. Media crews are in a separate meeting, and release team members will gather at 9 a.m. with their respective captains and lieutenants. I’ve been a part of many black-footed ferret releases in the United States — some were very haphazard while others were like a military operation. Pat and other Park biologists go through details about timing, equipment and safety. They ask me to say a little bit about what to expect from the black-footed ferrets. I tell them to be prepared for the unexpected.

11:02 a.m.
A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service van arrives with 34 black-footed ferrets inside. The animals were driven directly from the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, each in its own plastic pet crate. Pat quietly opens the hatch of the van, and I gently turn one of the pet crates to face the gathered cadre of media and onlookers. They silently take their turn at shooting video and stills of the black-footed ferrets.

black-footed ferret being filmed ©Travis Livieri
A cameraman from the documentary series The Nature of Things gets up-close footage of a newly released black-footed ferret. 

11:30 a.m.
Pat kicks everyone out so we can give the black-footed ferrets some quiet time. The day has many more activities and events planned. He removes two crates from the van, containing a male and a female black-footed ferret, and departs for the start of the afternoon ceremonies, which include a First Nation pipe ceremony, public luncheon, seven brief speeches by dignitaries and high-ranking officials, and finally the late-afternoon, official public release of black-footed ferrets in Canada.

I stay behind with Rob, a Parks Canada biologist, and the other 32 black-footed ferrets that will be released in the early evening by select teams and members of the media. Rob and I gently remove each pet crate from the van, check on the black-footed ferret to make sure it survived the long drive in good health, and feed it prairie dog meat. Most of the black-footed ferrets get irritated by our intrusion and chatter loudly. We do our best to work quickly and efficiently to minimize any stress and disturbance.

2:25 p.m.
I arrive at the public luncheon near the end of the dignitary speeches. Rob will drive the remaining black-footed ferrets to the field at 5 p.m. There are several large, white tents set up near an old homestead in the middle of the Park. I’m told they served 310 people at lunch.

2:47 p.m.
The film crew and I depart early for the release prairie dog colony so we can film the people as they arrive for the public release.

3:12 p.m.
We see the cars, trucks and buses begin to filter down the narrow, gravel road to the Larson prairie dog colony. Two areas are roped off as the official release sites. Men, women and children emerge from their vehicles and eagerly wait in the cordoned off area. Media cameras set up. More people arrive. And more. And more. I can’t believe it. There must be almost 200 people present.

3:35 p.m.
The crate containing the first black-footed ferret is set on the ground a few feet away from a prairie dog burrow. People jockey for position and crane their necks to get a better view. A hush falls over the crowd as a high-ranking official leans over and squeezes the latch to open the crate. The door slowly swings open. Dozens of cameras are cued up, ready to capture “the moment.” Years of preparation, planning and captive breeding hinge upon this moment. And nothing happens.

After nearly a minute, a small, black nose pokes through the shredded paper bedding, sniffs the afternoon air and disappears again. Slowly, cautiously the nose reappears and this time we see a face, too. Taking in its surroundings and this large gathering of people, the black-footed ferret reluctantly creeps out of the crate and makes a slow descent into the prairie dog burrow. The crowd is pleased. I look over to my friend Maria from the Toronto Zoo; despite her sunglasses, I can see that she is crying. She’s worked long and hard for this moment. She and her staff have been captive breeding black-footed ferrets since 1992 with the hope of someday releasing them on Canadian soil. That day has arrived, and I am so proud for her. I turn to Pat, shake his hand and tell him congratulations. It’s time to get the other 33 black-footed ferrets on the ground.

8:22 p.m.
All 34 black-footed ferrets have been released by small, select teams and media crews. Folks are en-route back to Val Marie for a public celebration, silent auction and dance. I remain behind with the film crew on Larson prairie dog colony. Our work has just begun, as we will spotlight and follow a few black-footed ferrets over the next two nights.

Sitting on the gate of my pickup truck, I watch the taillights of vehicles fade into the distance and darkness envelops me. The moon is brilliant, and I take a deep breath of the cool, crisp Canadian air. This was truly a spectacular release. The staff of Parks Canada and citizens of Val Marie put together a black-footed ferret release event like I had never seen before. It was amazing to participate in it. But most importantly, we now have black-footed ferrets on the ground in Canada. My thoughts turn to the country’s 34 newest citizens, back where they belong after 70 years. Admittedly, I don’t know all the words, but with a broad smile in the dark silence of a prairie dog colony, I couldn’t help but sing, “O Canada, our home and native land …”

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Our Home And Native Land: Canada Welcomes Back Black-Footed Ferrets

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Reader Comments
I just read the blog and I'm so happy about the Black Footed Ferrets reintroduction. I miss my ferret family who have all crossed the Rainbow Bridge. They are very special animals. Thank you for your work with them.
Kathy, Lords Valley, PA
Posted: 9/27/2011 11:37:55 AM
How wonderful! So Travis, when do we get an
update on the BBFs? Really enjoy hearing about all you do.
Connie and Alexa, Edinburg, IL
Posted: 12/9/2010 1:41:17 PM
It was absolutely fantastic reading about the release of the Black Footed Ferrets in my home province of Saskatchewan and am very glad that they're back. I live north of Val Marie in the capital city of Regina and am currently mom to 2 wonderful domestic ferrets and have proudly been owned by 4 who have unfortunately gone to the Rainbow Bridge. I hope you continue to keep us up-to-date on their progress along with pictures if possible. Thank you for doing a great job and also to all those who have worked so hard to accomplish this.
Marie, Regina, SK
Posted: 11/20/2009 1:40:01 PM
I'm so glad for the BFF's. This is really ground breaking stuff they're doing! An historic occasion, and I cannot wait for Travis's production on PBS Expeditions about his work done this summer!! Fantastic!
Cheryl, Jacksonville, FL
Posted: 11/16/2009 2:21:30 PM
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