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Biologist Travis Livieri Dreams Big For Black-Footed Ferrets

As the endangered black-footed ferret fights back from extinction, biologist Travis Livieri reflects on where conservation efforts are at and looks ahead to exciting days.

By Marylou Zarbock
Posted: November 11, 2010, 3:20 p.m. EST

Page 2 of 2

The Five Zoos With BFF Breeding Programs
1. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colorado
2. Phoenix Zoo, Arizona
3. Louisville Zoo, Kentucky
4. The National Zoo, Washington, DC
5. Toronto Zoo, Ontario, Canada

Working To Save The Species
Another critical element to the black-footed ferret program is monitoring the wild population, and one of the best ways to do that is by biologists going out into the field at night and "spotlighting.” This involves cruising the prairie, usually in a pickup, with a large spotlight to locate the distinctive eye-shine of black-footed ferrets. Usually they’re spotted peering out of a prairie dog burrow that has been usurped. Once sighted, a live trap is placed in the burrow and a GPS marker left. If biologists are lucky when they return later that night, a black-footed ferret is in the trap, ready to be examined; this involves logging its vital statistics and vaccinating against plague. The ferret gets tagged if it hasn’t been previously.

Livieri spends a lot of his time running around in the field doing this type of work. He mostly works at the Conata Basin site in South Dakota, but this year he also worked at sites in Canada, Montana, Kansas and the Wind Cave site, also in South Dakota.

Spotlighting has yet to be completed for 2010. Livieri hopes to head back out to Conata Basin again in December, and the data isn’t complete for all other sites either. In January, biologists and black-footed ferret officials will meet to review the data from all the sites and judge how the black-footed ferret populations are faring. "I think we’re maintaining and maybe increasing a little,” Livieri speculated.

One factor complicating this year’s count of the wild black-footed ferret population was the harsh winter and difficult spring in 2010. Livieri believes the reproduction of the wild population was delayed by a few weeks because of these conditions, which made it more difficult to locate the ferrets as they weren’t where they were expected to be.

Exciting Days Ahead For Black-Footed Ferrets
Black-footed ferrets are coming soon to Canadian television. Livieri said that a film crew documented the life of reintroduced black-footed ferrets at the Canadian site in Saskatchewan. Filming began in October 2009 and ended in September 2010 to capture an entire year. Livieri said this documentary is in post-production and scheduled to air on Canadian television in February 2011 on the show The Nature Of Things with David Suzuki. It’s possible that a longer version of this could be released in the United States in 2011, but that depends on how it fares at film festivals and whether it’s picked up by anyone.

The BBC was also on the prairie recently and captured black-footed ferret footage that could appear in its new series Nature’s Miracle Babies, scheduled to debut in 2011.

Perhaps the biggest excitement for black-footed ferrets coming in 2011 is the 30-year anniversary of the rediscovery of the species. Black-footed ferrets were thought to have gone extinct in the 1970s, but on September 26, 1981, a ranch dog in Meeteese, Wyoming, killed one and brought it home to his owners – which ultimately led to the discovery of a black-footed ferret colony and rediscovery of the species. Livieri is hoping that Black-Footed Ferret Day in 2011 will be a big celebration.

"My dream is to have a gigantic reunion of anyone who ever worked with black-footed ferrets,” he said. He wants them to all gather with bunches of food and beer and trade stories. "I want to learn the story of the black-footed ferrets through the eyes of the people that lived it.” Of course, Livieri realizes this is quite a dream. He knows the people are out there, he just doesn’t know where to get the time or resources to make such an event happen.

He has plenty of other ideas for celebrating, too. "Ideas are abundant,” Livieri said, "it’s finding the time and money to pull them off that’s the hard part.”

He hopes that people will continue the tradition started in 2006 to hold their own black-footed ferret party on Black-Footed Ferret Day. Shannan Skitch of Ontario, Canada came up with the idea, and Livieri thinks it’s great. He’s even pondering whether he could put together a black-footed ferret party kit to sell to raise more funds to help save black-footed ferrets.

Raising funds is yet another part of his job. And he and others at Prairie Wildlife Research (PWR) do what they can, from offering sponsorship of wild black-footed ferrets to creating a wish list of black-footed ferret field supplies that people can gift to the organization to offering PWR VISA credit cards and more.

Livieri and his team also create innovative fundraisers, one of these tied together Mother’s Day and Endangered Species Day, both of which occur in May. On November 30, 2010, Livieri teams with Totally Ferret, a manufacturer of ferret-specific food, for Black-Footed Ferret Tuesday. Ten percent of total sales of all ferret, cat or dog food or treats ordered from Totally Ferret on that day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. go to black-footed ferret recovery efforts. People who wish to participate just need to call Totally Ferret that day and place an order. Callers might also be lucky enough to talk with Livieri himself, who will be one of the people answering the phones. He hopes to get a lot of calls.

Livieri’s biggest dream is for black-footed ferrets to enjoy such a huge population growth that they’re no longer endangered. He looks at it this way, ""It’s my job to put the [captive-breeders] out of business.”
But until that day arrives, Livieri is ready to spend nights on the prairie chasing BFF eye-shine. "I am, first and foremost, a stinky ferret biologist; not that the ferrets are stinky, I am!”

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Biologist Travis Livieri Dreams Big For Black-Footed Ferrets

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Reader Comments
I DREAM BIG TOO, TRAVIS!!! I cannot wait for BFFs to invade the great state of Texas! We have tons of food and tunnels for the ferrets if we can just get the politicians and ranchers on board! I hope to attend your big 30th anniversary Gala next year so mark me down!
Susan, Odessa, TX
Posted: 11/29/2010 11:19:28 PM
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