One of the most appealing aspects of being in the Colorado outdoors is the wildlife viewing potential. I always keep my eyes out for Bighorn Sheep in Big Thompson Canyon, Elk in Estes Park, Mule Deer in Poudre Canyon, and Moose at Cameron Pass as I’m hiking or driving through. Even though I’m watching out for black bears and mountain lion for safety reasons, it’s still pretty cool when I come across them in the wild.
Wildlife viewing may be a fun perk to being in the wilderness, but their management is essential to local ecosystem health and sustainability. With healthy ecosystems comes beautiful and fulfilling moments in our Colorado outdoors, be it fly fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, or more.
The Fort Collins Natural Areas Program has a fascinating wildlife management guide. It’s a pretty interesting read if you take the time to go over it. I’m sure it’s tricky to balance conservation with recreational impacts, economics with surrounding ranches and grazing land, and government budgets. The management guide goes over how they balance that all out, and includes a chapter on Wildlife Species of Concern in City of Fort Collins Natural Areas. The Black-footed Ferret reintroduction to Soapstone Prairie is listed as a focus, as well as possible future reintroduction of the American Bison and Gray Wolf in the same area (no kidding!).
Soapstone Prairie is a big focus on the reintroduction of species because the area is huge. There are nearly 19,000 acres of prairie that are held in direct public ownership with an additional 55,000 acres of other public and private protected lands surrounding the landscape. Soapstone Prairie could serve as a genetic reservoir of reintroduced species – like the Black-Footed Ferret.
The Black-Footed Ferret used to run around these parts until they were thought to be extinct from poisoning and hunting. In fact, they were the most endangered mammal in North America when in 1981, 18 Black-Footed Ferrets were found near Meeteetse, Wyoming and conservation efforts began.
So, here we are today in Northern Colorado with 15 reintroduced Black-Footed Ferrets in prairie dog colonies (their natural food source) at Soapstone thanks to the City working in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, along with collaborative efforts between the Folsom Grazing Association and the Natural Fort Grazing Association, who have land in the surrounding area.
This was a big deal, and a historic moment for wildlife conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
My kids and I attended the release event on Wednesday evening. First, I had no idea it would be as family-friendly of an event that it was. I had my kids hyped up to possibly see them, but mostly talked about the short hike to the release site. When we arrived, we were directed to the back of an SUV loaded with ferrets in cages. They had mesh wire across the front so you couldn’t see them very well, but you sure could hear them chatter loudly. There was also an educational craft table where the kids learned about the ferrets and a simple lesson on genetics from volunteers. THEY LOVED IT. And the volunteers were amazing in helping the kids understand what the event was all about beyond a hike.
After their ferret masks were colored and they used some critical thinking skills in a game when it came to genetics of reintroduced species, there were remarks from various officials and departments who helped make the reintroduction happen:
- Fort Collins Mayor, Karen Weitkunat
- State Representative, Randy Fischer
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife Assistant Director, Chad Bishop
- USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services State Director, Michael Yeary
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Acting State Conservationist, Maria Collazo
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director, Noreen Walsh
From their comments it became clear on how challenging this was to get so many people on board. They also talked about the challenges of reintroduced ferrets as a whole, and their plague vaccination plans to help keep them healthy and sustainable. I thought that was particularly interesting.
Soon we were on the trail, which was essentially a rutted dirt road. It was memorable to see a line of people hiking as such a large group to the site. My oldest thought we looked like a line of ants. At the release site I expected to have to use my binoculars to see them – but nope! They had one ferret released fairly close to the attendees who all stood by and watched a little furry body slide through a black tube into a prairie dog hole, then pop its head out to watch everyone. The other ferrets were released farther away.
This event was not only educational for my kids, but also for me in understanding how important our native wildlife species are to our natural areas, and the brief insights to the Fort Collins Natural Areas Program.
Additional ferrets will be released at Soapstone Prairie and Utilities’ Meadow Springs Ranch in the coming weeks, but these releases are not open to the public. So, bummer if you missed out on this. However, the Natural Areas Department is planning educational programming, including possible spotlighting opportunities (ferret viewing at night) for 2015. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop on that!