What do you do when you find one of North America’s most endangered mammals in your garage?
A Pueblo West man wasn’t sure when he found a black-footed ferret that slipped inside his garage Monday night, so he coaxed the slender-bodied ferret into a box and called Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The ferret was one of nine which biologists released onto a prairie dog colony — as part of a conservation effort to restore the species — on sprawling Walker Ranch near the man’s home about two weeks ago, wildlife officers determined after looking at a microchip placed between the ferret’s shoulder blades.
Conservationists still aren’t sure why the black-footed ferret escaped from the colony and sought shelter in the Pueblo West garage. CPW conservation biologist Ed Schmal called the ferret’s moves “extremely rare,” noting that the species is nocturnal and extremely shy.
“We put them into prairie dog burrows but they may not stay. Sometimes they scramble around the colony to find the right home. This one might have gotten pushed out by other ferrets and it went looking for a new home,” Schmal said. “We really don’t know.”
CPW has received only one other report of a black-footed ferret leaving the ranch, but it has never heard of a ferret entering a garage or similar structure.
After confirming that the ferret was healthy, and not starving, wildlife officers took the ferret inside the box and hiked deep into the prairie colony in the dark. They watched the ferret scurry into a prairie dog burrow, according to CPW.
Biologists with the agency have released more than 120 black-footed ferrets on the ranch since 2013. They have distributed plague vaccines to the colonies in an effort to protect the ferrets and the prairie dogs, which is their primary source of food and shelter. The ferrets hunt the prairie dogs in their own shelter — one ferret eats one prairie dog about every three days, according to the National Park Service — and then take shelter in abandoned prairie dog dwellings.
Reintroduction efforts were paused during the pandemic to protect the ferrets from possible exposure to COVID-19. About two weeks ago, biologists resumed and set nine ferrets free in a 1,600-acre prairie dog colony south of U.S. 50 on the ranch, CPW said.
Fewer than 500 black-footed ferrets live in the wild today — at 17 reintroduction sites — according to the World Wildlife Fund.