A Culture of Coexistence

With guidance from NWF, the Lakotas have established a self-sustaining population of endangered black-footed ferrets on their tribal lands in South Dakota

  • Michael Lipske
  • Jan 19, 2011

WHEN MEMBERS of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe wanted to put a lid on their reservation’s expanding black-tailed prairie dog population, they knew poisoning the rodents was not an option.

“The Lakota philosophy is that all creatures are important,” says Mike Claymore, a tribe member and endangered species coordinator for its Prairie Management Program. On the other hand, he says, there “were just getting to be too many” prairie dogs (below) living on the tribe’s reservation in north-central South Dakota.

Landowners and government authorities across the West have long used poison to control the burrowing rodents, which are loathed by many cattle ranchers, who say prairie dogs eat grass that could feed cows. And though Cheyenne River’s main source of income is leasing rangeland for cattle grazing, the tribe opted for a less-destructive prairie dog strategy: bringing a long-absent predator back to the reservation.

Since 2000, the tribe has been releasing captive-bred black-footed ferrets (above) in the reservation’s prairie dog colonies. These elegant-looking members of the weasel family eat prairie dogs and live in their burrows. The 201 released ferrets have since produced nearly 600 young, and the population is now considered self-sustaining—an important part of efforts in the West to successfully reintroduce one of North America’s most endangered mammals to the wild.

The Cheyenne River project was launched with major guidance from NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program, which works nationwide with tribes to conserve wildlife and habitat. Starting in the late 1990s, Federation staff worked with Lakota officials to plan the ferret project and secure funding for it. One of the project’s goals: to demonstrate that cattle can coexist with the prairie dog, a keystone species that provides food and shelter not only for ferrets but also for some 170 other wildlife species in its colonies. An NWF-produced report also publicized the tribe’s successes in restoring prairie wildlife and habitat on its 2,820,000 acres.

The Cheyenne River Reservation encompasses roughly 7 percent of remaining prairie dog habitat in the United States. “Native American lands have the best intact habitat remaining for much of the continent,” says Steve Torbit, NWF’s regional executive director in Colorado who oversees the organization’s tribal programs. “The tribes own or have management authority over 95 million acres in North America. Their lands offer huge potential to save or restore wildlife.”

Conserving wildlife also means sustaining plants and animals that are central to tribal culture and their survival. One impetus for another Cheyenne River wildlife success story—the restoration of bison on the reservation—was to establish a source of high-quality protein to help the tribe combat Type 2 diabetes, a disease that has reached epidemic proportions among Native Americans.

In southwest Arizona, the NWF Tribal Program has partnered for the past five years with Cocopah Indians to restore shoreline habitat along several miles of the Colorado River that flow through the tribe’s reservation near the Mexican border. NWF has hired workers to tear out stands of saltcedar, an invasive plant that grows in dense thickets and overwhelms native trees and shrubs. In its place, the workers are planting mesquite and other native species that provide feeding and resting habitat for migrating birds. Wildlife using the tribe’s habitat include threatened and endangered birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, Bell’s vireo and Yuma clapper rail.

In north-central Minnesota, home of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, “we’ve developed a program with the tribal college to get natural-resource students out in the field to collect data in the reservation’s 440,000 acres of wetlands,” says Torbit. The program encourages the band’s young people to go on to attend four-year colleges and then return home to help safeguard the Red Lake area’s resources.

Meanwhile, in the West, experts considered black-footed ferrets extinct until 1981, when the chance discovery of a small population of the animals in Wyoming led to a captive-breeding program and recovery effort spearheaded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the agency went looking for places to reintroduce the small predators into the wild, the prairie dog colonies at Cheyenne River were an obvious choice. “We have more than 500 prairie dog towns on the reservation,” says Claymore. “Some are as small as 30 burrows, others spread across thousands of acres.”

Working with the Lakota also was a natural fit for NWF. “Our goal was to help the tribe achieve their conservation goals,” says Torbit, adding that the Federation lobbied government officials in Washington, D.C., and South Dakota “to make sure the tribe had the political, financial and public support to pursue the project.”

“I am optimistic about the ferret’s future,” says Claymore, who last year received permission from the tribal council to begin relocating ferrets to more locations on the reservation. “I’m trying to right now put enough ferrets into different areas so that they will make it on their own, just like they did historically in the West.”

Journalist Michael Lipske is based in Washington, D.C.

NWF Priority: Helping Tribes Confront Warming

In addition to addressing wildlife habitat issues, NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program is working with several tribes on a variety of projects to develop renewable energy strategies and other solutions to climate change on reservations. In collaboration with partners, NWF recently released a report, The New Energy Future in Indian Country, detailing such strategies.


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