FERRETING OUT A SAFE HARBOR: Proposed rule seeks special designation, reduces risk for landowners with ferrets | TSLN.com

FERRETING OUT A SAFE HARBOR: Proposed rule seeks special designation, reduces risk for landowners with ferrets

Sometimes, ferreting out the intent of a federal agency's actions is not easy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed a rule to give special designation to the state of Wyoming as they continue their attempt to increase black-footed ferret numbers.

The Endangered Species designation of a ferret or any animal instills a special fear in the heart of a landowner, not because rural folks dislike the species in decline but because the designation brings with it regulatory burden. Grazing is cut on federal land, natural resource use on private land is restricted and if the animal is accidentally harmed or killed fines of up to $100,000 or even jail time can be imposed.

The "10(j) rules" would make the ferret a non-essential experimental population, rather than an endangered species in the state of Wyoming. The rule "gives landowners more assurances," said USFWS field supervisor Mark Sattleberg.

"We are expecting to give landowners both private and federal more interest in releasing ferrets. We wouldn't go after landowners if they accidentally took a ferret. They don't have to worry about regulations as far as fish and wildlife enforcing endangered species law." Sattleberg said the different designation would apply to every ferret in the state.

While Douglas rancher Frank Eathorne, Sr., said he is not excited about ferrets being raised in his backyard, he said the 10(j) rule "will be helpful."

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The USFWS hopes to give managers of both private and federal land more interest in releasing ferrets by eliminating the concern of punishment for incedental or accidental takings.

A few landowners have expressed interest but Sattleberg said the USFWS has no immediate plans of releasing ferrets in Wyoming.

He adds that his office has "been talking" with the U.S. Forest Service about the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. "This may make it easier for them to release the black-footed ferret."

There is no financial compensation under the so-called "safe harbor" for a landowner who would agree to house a release project but there is funding under the farm bill for endangered species recovery, Sattleberg said.

Eathorne, who is involved in a grazing association who permits ranchers to utilize the Thunder Basin National Grasslands said he is "in the area" where "they claim to introduce the black footed ferret. We call it 'introduction' rather than re-introduction.'" Eathorne said there is no proof that the ferret ever actually lived in that region. "It is possible he was but there is no solid factual evidence," he said.

Past discussions of ferret releases have raised concern from the grazing association. "It affects management and could even eliminate grazing." Eathorn points out that, when it comes to federal agencies, the ferret never comes without it's much more destructive partner, the prairie dog. Prairie dogs are a food source for ferrets, so management of one species goes hand-in-hand with management of the other on federal lands.

The U.S. Forest Service, who manages the grasslands, does not poison prairie dogs on the borders of their property, which leaves both the public and the private land interspersed, damaged and in some cases destroyed by the overpopulated prairie dogs who severely overgraze forage, said Eathorne.

Between 2011 and 2013, they did poison within one mile of residences in occupied prairie dog territory, he said.

USFS public affairs officer Aaron Voos, Cheyenne, said as far as he knows, the rule proposal does not mean that re-introductions on the Thunder Basin grasslands are imminent. "It may get the ball in motion but as far as we know there are no plans in place."

Voos added that the current prairie dog management plan would remain in effect. The state of Wyoming has asked that the plan be amended, however, to address encroachment issues on private land.

"We are looking at ways to adjust the 2009 plan to make it more compatible with what the state is asking," he said.

"We do have an area in Thunder Basin that is managed specifically for ferret reintroduction."

Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming property rights committee chair Dr. Taylor Haynes is leery of the proposal. "It appears to be well-meaning to help control the prairie dog but it's a thinly veiled attempt to further restrict grazing and other access to grazing lands," Haynes said, adding that prairie dogs should be aggressively controlled and that ferrets are not an adquate control mechanism.

Wyoming Stockgrowers Association executive vice president Jim Magagna said that his group supports the move, though. In the past, landowners could enter into agreements that protected the individual who agreed to host the ferret but that neighbors could still be liable for any problems occurring with border-crossing ferrets.

Magagna said his group has been working with the state game and fish agency in "pushing for" the 10(j) designation statewide.

Prairie dog control is a big issue when it comes to ferrets, and Magagna said his group's policy is that the federal government needs to finance and implement control measures on the edges of its own property. Magagna is aware of at least one landowner with an interest in hosting ferrets.

In a 2013 TSLN story about ferret re-introductions in South Dakota, a Badlands rancher discussed the prairie dog population explosion that came with the "non-essential, experimental population," or 10(j) rule change in his state.

"In 1994, we had the first ferret reintroduction in Conata Basin, in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, near Badlands National Park (south of Wall, South Dakota) 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 wondered.

Since that time, the sylvatic plague has greatly de-populated prairie dogs in that state.

Eathorne worries about plague hitting his part of Wyoming. "When prairie dogs are densely populated and uncontrolled the plague is much more deveastating. It's a double bad deal for the ferrets if the plague comes through," he said.

"We don't have anything against the ferret, it's the baggage with the ESA," Eathorne said, adding that he worries about the 10(j) rule being jerked away at some point in the future, leaving his state full of a protected species.

Dr. Taylor Haynes agrees. "The ferret can be listed or not listed. It's just a matter of which way the wind is blowing politically. It's an attempt to get another lever, another wedge between ranchers and their access to grazing."

The announcement of the proposal opens a 60-day comment period, which will close on June 9, 2015.

Written comments on this proposed rule and related environmental analyses can be submitted by one of the following methods:

• Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the Keyword box, enter Docket No. FWS–R6–ES–2015–0013, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Proposed Rules link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on "Send a Comment or Submission."

• By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R6–ES–2015–0013; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803