POWELL — For the same reason, you probably shouldn’t marry your cousin if you want healthy children, nearly four decades after the last black-footed ferrets were rescued from a ranch in Park County, the species faces an uncertain future, despite early and forward-looking work by researchers in response to the wildlife crisis.
Only seven females from the 1985 rescue mission were able to mate in captivity. From this handful of individuals, more than 10,000 descendants were bred. All American polecats living today are closely related.
There are only about 300 black-footed ferrets currently living in the wild in controlled sites across the west.
Due to inbreeding, the species has now begun to show noticeable effects of a small gene pool, including lower fertility rates and susceptibility to disease, said Ryan Phelan, co-founder and executive director of Revive. & Restore, a collaborative non-profit genetics research organization. with the federal government on the program.
These diseases and these fears for the sustainability of critically endangered species have contributed to the conclusion of an agreement between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Revive & Restore, which specializes in cloning.
Amazingly soon after the two groups’ collaboration was codified, Elizabeth Ann was introduced to the world with great fanfare. She is a clone of Willa, one of the original 18 ferrets, but died before successfully breeding in captivity.
A special roundtable, hosted by the Draper Natural History Museum last week, revealed how special actions taken decades ago could save the species from extinction.
Former Wyoming game warden Dennie Hammer was part of the small team sent to John Hogg’s ranch in 1981 to search for ferrets thought to be extinct. The family dog, Shep, brought home a dead black-footed ferret that year, essentially alerting the world that the species was not extinct after all.
Arriving at Hogg Ranch, Hammer and wildlife biologist Conrad Hillman set off on a night mission armed with a flashlight. When they first saw the telltale signs of ferret eyes reflecting beams of light, they immediately knew what they had found.
They went to the burrow where they saw their first ferret. As they looked down the hole, the cloaked creature showed up and protested the intrusion.
“Nobody said anything about the barking ferrets,” Hammer told the Coe Auditorium crowd, prompting a roar of laughter. “I almost fell.”
Both knew the historical value of the discovery.
“We both looked at each other and just started dancing. It was just a fantastic moment. I will never forget it,” he said.
They eventually found around 80 ferrets, but over the next four years the population continued to decline due to sylvatic plague and canine distemper. It became clear that something had to be done quickly.
The remaining ferrets were captured. After rolling 17, something told Hammer to do one more research. He came out and found a single ferret with a scar on his cheek. The team affectionately called him Scarface.
From there, the last remaining group of black-footed ferrets were moved to a Wyoming Game and Fish Department facility at Sybille Canyon, then transferred to the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in northern Colorado. The move caused negative feelings between the federal government and residents living in the ferrets’ habitat who wanted them to stay in the area, said Dr. Lenox Baker, owner of the Pitchfork Ranch.
“The town of Meeteetse didn’t like it. Some people are still complaining about it,” he told the crowd gathered in Coe Auditorium.
It turned out that Scarface was the only male that would initially breed, mating with seven females. Thanks in part to this last-minute decision by Hammer, more than 10,000 American ferrets have been bred since the rescue.
In 1988, Dr. Oliver Ryder, director of conservation genetics at the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, collected cell cultures from two deceased black-footed ferrets that had come to the zoo in 1988.
The Frozen Zoo is dedicated to saving plants and wildlife around the world through the banking and research of bioresources – essentially saving frozen cell cultures for future use.
Ryder didn’t have a crystal ball. Dolly, the first cloned sheep was still a decade away, but he fully understood that science would continue to evolve and decided to save the cells without a clear direction in mind.
“We knew then that there would be things [in the future] that we couldn’t imagine it would be possible to do,” he said.
Researchers now realize that the cell cultures of the two dead ferrets, a male and a female, contain previously untapped DNA information that could help diversify the breeding program. Elizabeth Ann has become the first endangered native animal species in North America to be cloned.
The cloning success was celebrated, but unfortunately Elizabeth Ann is unable to reproduce.
“She had to undergo a hysterectomy for unfortunate reasons. But we have more Elizabeth Ann genetic twins on the way, and they will be on the way in 2023,” Phelan said.
They hope cell cultures from the male ferret will also be part of ongoing research in 2023.
“It would be bringing back two new founders,” she said.
Although the process leading to the first cloning was executed relatively quickly, it took the nonprofit a while to earn the trust of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Phelan said.
“When we first came out, we were sort of the West Coast Liberals in the meeting. And we were viewed with a lot of suspicion,” she said.
There were questions about the organization’s sustainability and level of commitment, but ultimately government officials agreed to the plan knowing that the future of the species required bold action. Yet they continue to be cautious in their actions.
“It’s not like we gave them a blank check for lab permits,” said Pete Gober, recovery coordinator for the center. “We have our hands on the accelerator.”
Even if future cloning using domestic ferrets as vessels is successful, the Fish and Wildlife Service monitors whether cloned ferret offspring are released. There are 32 reintroduction sites across the west in eight states, as well as Canada and Mexico, and breeders choose whether ferrets are ready for the wild and when and how many are reintroduced.
On September 28, the Conservation Center worked with Game and Fish and Fish and Wildlife Services to release 18 ferrets to the Pitchfork Ranch. Continued releases are important after an outbreak of sylvatic plague in the Meeteetse broadcast area rendered previous releases largely ineffective, said Zack Walker, non-game supervisor for the state.
The process of inoculating prairie dogs against disease and dust against fleas is expensive and time-consuming. Researchers found they could vaccinate prairie dogs by offering them peanut butter-flavored, vaccine-loaded baits.
“It seems that the numbers of prairie dogs [in Meeteetse] are now increasing. And this year we actually documented [ferret] breeding again, so we estimate the populations will increase,” Walker said.
The population reintroduced to Shirley-Basin is stable, Walker said.
But while more than 10,000 black-footed ferrets have been bred since the species’ rediscovery, their average lifespan is short, and good habitat for prairie dogs is hard to come by.
Prairie dogs make up 90% of the diet of black-footed ferrets. A family of four ferrets can consume over 750 prairie dogs per year. Ferrets also use prairie dog burrows for shelter and to raise families.
The agencies are working with private landowners, like the Baker and Hogg families in Meeteetse, to secure the rights to farm much-needed habitat and to overcome the negative stigma attached to rodents.
“None of this could happen if we didn’t have the cooperation of [private] landowners,” Walker said.
Corey Anco, acting curator of the Draper Museum of Natural History, was thrilled to have the roundtable at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
“Our goal is to combine science and education with community. And so what better place to host a wide range of speakers, conservationists, ecologists, scientists and geneticists to spread the word and bring this science to the community than here,” he said. he declares.