by Elizabeth Shogren for NPR News:
Courtesy of Dean Biggins
American pioneers saw the endless stretches of grassland of the Great Plains as a place to produce grain and beef for a growing country. But one casualty was the native prairie ecosystem and animals that thrived only there.
Some biologists are trying to save the prairies and they’ve picked a hero to help them: the black-footed ferret. In trying to save this long skinny predator with a raccoon-like mask, the biologists believe they have a chance to right a wrong that nearly wiped a species off the planet.
Ferrets, it turns out, suffered collateral damage in the century-long campaign by human farmers and ranchers against the prairie dog. Prairie dogs compete with livestock for forage, and riddle and ruin crops with their tunnels and burrows.
But prairie dogs are also key prey for the black-footed ferret, a member the weasel family. Killing off prairie dogs with poisons has put pressure on ferret populations, too.
These days, as many as several hundred wild ferrets are scattered across the grassland and prairie from Arizona to Canada. But it takes a tremendous amount of work to keep these animals on the landscape because of a variety of foes — chief among them a potent microbial killer, plague.