Sorry for banging on about black-footed ferrets, but here’s a bit on why this trip was so special to me:
Forty years ago the black-footed ferret was a bit more like the Loch Ness Monster than it is today. You couldn’t see it. The species was extinct, a vanished part of the vanishing prairie — and not for the first time.
Though it was well-known to the Native American populations that shared its space, the black-footed ferret was overlooked by Lewis and Clark and all subsequent Euro-American expeditions, remaining officially unknown to science until John James Audubon, his sons, and the Rev. John Bachmann headed west to gather material for Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Somewhere around the Platte River one of the Audubon boys received a black-footed hide from a fur trader. Audubon painted this new creature and wrote up a brief description, which went into his posthumous book and so out into the world. For several years afterwards, it is said, scientists with no luck getting a specimen of their own accused Bachmann and the Audubons of making the whole thing up. Since Audubon did occasionally get things badly wrong, one can’t entirely blame them.
By the time everyone came to an agreement that the black-footed ferret existed, it was already getting scarce. In the 1950s the species was unofficially regarded as extinct by most biologists, a small part lost in the general tumble and disarray of the entire ecosystem they’d inhabited.
The first resurrection, or more properly resurfacing, of the black-footed ferret happened in 1964, in Mellette County, South Dakota. American scientists, realizing belatedly how embarrassing it was to know so little about a species right in the heart of their own continent, rushed to study this remnant population. When the South Dakota ferret numbers began dropping, they captured nine animals in hopes of starting a captive breeding population.
But the ferrets kept dying. All the wild ferrets by 1974, and all the kits born to the nine captives, and finally the last of the captive animals in 1979. It was a humiliation for scientific know-how and the technocratic fix in the face of environmental catastrophe, a disaster that would inform the controversy over later captive breeding efforts for other endangered species. Meanwhile, the black-footed ferret was declared finally, unambiguously, officially extinct.
For two years — years when I was learning to walk, talk, and name the animals that lived in the woods behind my parents’ farm, years when the roots of my own engagement with the environment were planted — the black-footed ferret was North America’s premier extinct mammal, gone forever with the Passenger Pigeon and the Great Auk.
Then, in Meeteese, Wyoming, the Hogg family’s ranch dog Shep found something. The way Randy figures it, a desperate or curious ferret discovered a bowl of dog chow, and set to eating kibbles; then Shep discovered the ferret. What we know for sure is that sometime on the morning of September 26, 1981, John Hogg went to investigate the strange noises from out back and he in turn discovered Shep playing with the body of an unfamiliar weasel-like animal. Neither John nor his wife Lucille had any idea what this creature was, so they brought it to the local taxidermist. It was the taxidermist who realized what the dog had stumbled upon and alerted the wider world.
Second chances like this are the stuff of legend. Desperate optimists have tried to wish every extinct species, from the plesiosaur to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, its own little island of habitat where it survives. But this is real life.