The black-footed ferret, currently a “non-essential, experimental population” in the badlands of western South Dakota, where recovery efforts have been underway for more than 20 years, seems like a harmless animal to livestock producers. It’s not like a wolf or a mountain lion that would threaten young calves or lambs. It’s not like a mouse or an owl that inhabits very large acreages ... right?
The issue with the black-footed ferret reintroduction efforts, for most in opposition, is that wildlife experts and enthusiasts have determined that “thriving” prairie dog towns are the ideal place for the ferrets to reproduce.
Unfortunately prairie dogs in large numbers are destructive; eating forage and then mowing grass to the dirt in order to keep watch for predators. And being a prolific rodent, they are almost always found in large numbers, according to Scenic, SD, rancher Marvin Jobgen.
“In 1994, we had the first ferret reintroduction in Conata Basin, in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, near Badlands National Park (south of Wall, SD) and the plan detailed a limit of 6,000 acres of prairie dogs. Then in 1997, the prairie dog was proposed for listing as an endangered species, and the federal government had to stop all control, and by 1999 or 2000 we were up to 38,000 acres of prairie dogs, then by 2007 there were 45,000 acres inhabited by prairie dogs in Conata Basin, according to the state’s survey,” Jobgen reports. “Even though we were getting adequate moisture for our area, the dust was blowing like it did in the ‘30s. These National Grasslands acreages were established by the federal government back in the 1930s to help improve range conditions after farming had caused serious erosion problems. Then in the 1990s the federal government raised so many prairie dogs that the problem returned. The government took the land back from those homesteaders, but who will take the land away from the government when they aren’t managing it properly?” Jobgen wonders.
Recently the U.S. Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the U.S. Department of Interior Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to “facilitate cooperative conservation efforts among the Parties in concert with willing landowners so as to maintain ranch land in prairie habitats, and to maintain the livestock operations that they support, while providing for the conservation and recovery of several wildlife species association with prairie dogs.” In short, the proposed arrangement would allow the U.S. government to financially compensate private landowners for allowing prairie dogs to thrive on their private property, and would attempt to “reintroduce” ferrets to such land holdings.
According to Jobgen, who holds grazing permits on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and also owns rangeland in the area, the main problem is the fact that prairie dogs don’t respect fences. “Right now, my biggest concern is - how will this affect our state laws? We can’t sue the state for damages when prairie dogs cross property lines. There is nothing telling us what a neighboring landowner will do, or how he will control the prairie dogs that move onto his property.”
Current South Dakota law, according to Jobgen, allows a private landowner to sue another landowner who refuses to control prairie dogs (considered a pest by the state), creating a problem for his neighbor. “Right now I can sue my neighbor if he isn’t trying to keep his prairie dogs under control, and they are encroaching on me, but the state and federal government have sovereign immunity, meaning I can’t sue them for damages, to force them to help pay for control or anything else,” Jobgen said. “This worries me about the MOU. Private landowners like me, who might be neighboring someone who signs the agreement, will have no recourse against encroaching prairie dogs that are now managed and financed by the federal government.”
According to the MOU, if a private landowner were to agree to the terms and take the plunge to essentially forfeit the use of their property in exchange for “raising” prairie dogs, they would have to commit a minimum of 1,500 acres. They would also sign a “safe harbor” agreement, absolving them of responsibility if a ferret were run over or accidentally killed (“taken”) in some way. The federal government would consider the ferret on that particular piece of land to be outside of the threatened status, “But the landowners’ neighbors could face significant penalties – jail time - if they were to accidentally kill a newly-reintroduced ferret,” said Jobgen. He also worries about what will happen to landowners who don’t participate in the reintroduction project, but whose property becomes home to a wandering “threatened” ferret. “They could take all my cows, make me start running prairie dogs, if they find a ferret that has traveled onto my property,” he said.
Jobgen said that, although the federal agencies signed the MOU back in September, it didn’t appear on the federal register until Dec. 19, with a short 30-day comment period.
“It was like they were hoping to slip it under the radar, during the holiday when everyone was busy, and just sneak it past us without us even knowing,” said Jobgen. He wouldn’t have known about the issue if not for a phone call from a Kansas woman who had read the federal register listing and was concerned. “I don’t think anyone in South Dakota knew anything about it, so we hurried and rallied the troops and asked for an extension on the comment period, so we could at least get organized and submit some useful and substantial comments.” The comment period was extended, and just closed on Feb. 22.
R-CALF USA, a national cattlemen’s organization submitted comments which included the following points (among many more):
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s definition of the term “prairie dog habitat” is not entirely clear. The term is not included in the glossary but is used to define the minimal acreage needed to constitute a “conservation zone.” For example, a minimum of 1,500 acres of black-tailed prairie dog habitat would be needed for a rancher (or ranchers) to participate in the Safe Harbor Agreement.
If the term “prairie dog habitat” is defined as acreage currently inhabited by prairie dogs, then the economic impact of dedicating such a large parcel of land to the black-footed ferret under the Safe Harbor Agreement would be considerable. This is because the forage available for livestock grazing amongst inhabited prairie dog burrows often is severely limited, if not eliminated, by the competing prairie dogs. If, for example, a 1,500 acre prairie dog town (i.e., the minimal acreage where black-tailed prairie dogs reside) were located in a region where the typical livestock carrying capacity was approximately 30 acres per cow, then a rancher would essentially need to forgo the revenues from up to approximately 50 cows on his or her ranching operation in order to sustain a prairie dog town of the size required by the Safe Harbor Agreement. Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, the annual national average revenue per cow in 2011 was $596.62 (characterized as gross value of production per bred cow). Therefore, a rough – though defensible – estimate is that a rancher would forgo up to nearly $30,000 in revenues per year to participate in the Safe Harbor Agreement, if the term “black-tailed prairie dog habitat” is defined as “acreage currently inhabited by black-tailed prairie dogs.”
Indeed, if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service achieves its stated goal for the “establishment of new ferret populations on 500,000 acres within the 3 million acres of potential ferret habitat range wide,” and assuming again the variables assigned above and the interpretation that each acre contains active prairie-dog burrows, the revenues lost to ranching could reach as high as $9.9 million per year.
Jobgen said that the state of South Dakota, in keeping with state law, submitted favorable comments. “The Game, Fish and Parks and the Ag Department are required to assist with efforts that could benefit endangered species, so they had to support the proposal but they did share some questions and concerns in their official comments.
“One thing the South Dakota Stockgrowers and I personally have asked for, is for open public hearings in each of the twelve affected states,” Jogben reports. The twelve states include: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, according to the MOU.
Now landowners in that vast region sit and wait for the army of federal agencies to make their move.