Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Re-introducing the black-footed ferret to Grasslands National Park

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

On October 2nd, Parks Canada will release around 40 black-footed ferrets into the prairie dog colonies in Grasslands National Park, implementing the recovery strategy for the black-footed ferret devised by the national recovery team and published earlier this year. The last wild ferret seen in Canada was in 1937 near Climax, Saskatchewan, and the species has been listed as extirpated by the federal government.

Everyone seems very excited to hear about the re-introduction of the ferret. Its always good news to hear that an extirpated animal is being given a second chance. And it is especially important in any ecosystem to have healthy populations of predators. I know some of the biologists on the recovery team and trust their judgement, yet can't help wondering if this is not the best way to proceed.

One of my concerns is that the area of appropriate habitat for the ferret is too small and limited for this to be characterized as a re-introduction that restores proper functioning to an ecosystem. Part of the quality of healthy grassland is an expansiveness that allows any species to shift and move as the habitat changes over time in any one place. But grassland today doesn’t always function that way—particularly when you look at something like the ferret. It has to have black-tailed prairie dogs but the area of prairie dogs in Canada is restricted to a very small zone in and around the national park. It’s one thing to re-introduce swift foxes all across Canada’s southern plains or to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone. In those cases there is ample habitat outside the parks, supporting the prey for those predators. Introducing the predator then can genuinely be said to help make it a fully functioning ecosystem.

I don’t think we can say the same about ferrets introduced into a geographically isolated prairie dog community that is 1000 hectares and not expanding appreciably.
Of course, if it works and the ferrets somehow make the prairie dog colonies more vigorous and their range expands too and the ferrets are able to survive on Richardson’s ground squirrels, and other species at risk are not being harmed by the re-introduction, then it might all be worth the effort. But it is an expensive gamble. What if the ferrets become inbred or die from plague or are eaten by great horned owls and other predators? Are they going to start dusting prairie dog burrows with deltamethrin and culling Great horned owls? And what will deltamethrin do to the burrowing owls who nest in the prairie dog towns? If the numbers of ferrets get too low will they keep supplementing with more captive bred animals? How far do we go with this? And why spend so much effort on something that doesn’t really have a chance to expand beyond this one small area?

There are many other larger and more immediate problems in our grassland ecology that are not getting enough attention. It is a matter of triage: instead of trying to manage critical habitat for an animal that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, why don’t we focus on securing and protecting critical habitat for the animals that are still breeding in the wild but struggling to maintain their populations? No one can tell me how many black-footed ferrets we once had in Canada—but we know that only 20 years ago we had thousands of Greater Sage Grouse and today we have a couple hundred. No, it doesn’t have to be either/or but let’s face it—resources are shrinking, from both government and private agencies, so we have to make wise choices.

I guess I am wondering too if this kind of high profile re-introduction is going to take the place of real grassland restoration and conservation. Is this is the right way to bring our grassland back to health?

Are we turning Grasslands National Park into a kind of living museum of what the grassland used to be, instead of using funds and resources to help the grassland in and around the park attract and support the best possible biodiversity on its own? Wouldn’t it be better to be working on the landscape community and ecosystem level rather than on one species that perhaps was never that common in Canada? We could use that Federal money to secure and protect the last Sage Grouse habitat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, or to keep oil and gas development out of the Sage grouse habitat, or to expand the park boundaries or work with neighbouring landowners to restore land to native grasses.

What it comes down to is this—does re-introducing a single species into a small patch of very limited habitat advance the overall effort to conserve and restore the mixed-grass prairie? Is it a wise use of limited resources?

Or is it about showcasing conservation to say, “here, look, we are making progress, doing good things with endangered species, bringing them back to their native habitat.” While all around the park, we are losing the quality and quantity of grassland habitat in general and many species at risk appear to be on their way out the door. Twenty years from now when those species are gone, will the solution be to do the same thing and bring them back with management-intensive re-introductions in small pieces of protected habitat? In place of wild, self-sustaining populations breeding and migrating as free species will we be happy with captive-bred ferrets, grouse and owls that we show to the tourists as examples of what native grassland creatures once looked like?

Are we managing for healthy and diverse grassland ecosystems or presiding over the degradation of grassland from wild, functioning ecosystem to human-managed living museum?

Advocates of this kind of species-introduction might defend the expense and effort by saying that it will bring a lot of attention to the park, which in turn will help people to see the need for grassland conservation.

This kind of thinking always sounds reasonable, partly because it is the familiar form of rationalization we use everyday to justify the moral compromises we make in our own lives. But whenever we justify less than worthy means by pointing to honourable ends we are participating in the ultimate erosion of the very good we want to uphold. If we care about our native grasslands and the species that depend upon it, we must ensure that the way we act and the choices we make today are in every way worthy of our long-term goals of conservation and restoration.

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