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Kansas nature center helps protect black-footed ferret

In this Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Gyrfalcon, a

In this Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Gyrfalcon, a black-footed ferret comes out of his hole for a brief moment at Prairie Park Nature Center in Lawrence, Kan. Photo Credit: Nick Krug/The Lawrence Journal-World via AP

LAWRENCE, Kan. — A ferret species once thought to be extinct is making a modest comeback on the prairie, thanks to the work of staff at a Kansas nature center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.

The Prairie Park Nature Center and volunteers from various institutions across Kansas have surveyed the black-footed ferret recovery site in Logan County annually for the last decade. Prairie Park staff members feel optimistic after a November trip to the 1,100-acre tract in western Kansas, where crews help capture, tag and vaccinate wild-born ferrets, the Lawrence Journal-World reported .

"We located and trapped a number of ferrets the very first night," said Marty Birrell, nature interpretive supervisor at Prairie Park. "It's not unusual to go a few nights without seeing anything because these guys, they're only above ground about 5 percent of the day."

The species was thought be extinct until 1981, when a cluster was discovered on a Wyoming ranch. Today's black-footed ferrets descend from that group of about a dozen, Birrell said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not released data from the November survey, but Birrell said her team found at least 20 ferrets. She said that number is substantial because there are only about 300 black-footed ferrets left in the U.S., according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Birrell said the decline is linked with the extermination of prairie dogs, the ferrets' main food. Prairie dogs have long been considered agricultural pests in the western U.S.

"The Endangered Species Act was designed to not only protect and recover endangered species, but their habitats as well," she said. "And unfortunately, there's a sort of historical mindset about prairie dogs in the West that they're a varmint species and that they don't deserve to be conserved and protected."

Birrell said the ferrets are part of an "incredible biodiversity" that stems from the prairie dog that supports over 140 species, such as mule deer, swift foxes, badgers and owls.

"And besides which, the black-footed ferret is just a highly interesting little animal," she said. "If we lose it completely, it's not going to make or break the prairie. If we lose prairie dogs, that will."

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