Dec 27, 2012 - The Associated PressSIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A species of ferrets once thought to be extinct has been seen outside of special management areas in South Dakota, sparking hope in some biologists that a new wild colony of black-footed ferrets has been discovered.
A wildlife biologist with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said an adult ferret and two juveniles spotted during a nighttime survey in prairie dog towns west of Mobridge could be the first sighting of the creatures in the wild in more than three decades.
The animals were saved from extinction through intervention in Wyoming and have expanded gradually from there, but always in monitored colonies.
"It's pretty exciting," biologist Barry Betts said. "I've been in the business for 40 years, and this is only the second time in my life that I've ever seen a black-footed ferret."
The Standing Rock tribe straddles the state line between North Dakota and South Dakota.
Despite Betts' optimism that the discovery could be a new wild colony, other biologists are skeptical. Pete Gober, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's national ferret recovery program, said it's unlikely the trio is from a long-lost colony.
He said it's more likely that the ferrets migrated from one of the six reintroduction sites -- which has been the goal of the recovery effort from the beginning.
The black-footed ferret is the comeback kid of the west. Its survival is dependent on its main food source, prairie dogs, which were hunted to near-extinction for their pelts. As the prairie dogs disappeared, so, too, did the black-footed ferrets, and for decades the species was believed to be extinct.
That changed 31 years ago when a Wyoming farm dog near Meeteetse, brought a dead ferret to his owners.
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