The high plains around Rangely have a naked beauty. The sage-brushed earth stretches out like a khaki-colored ocean, finally succumbing to sandstone hills in the distance.
For the folks in Rangely, rich land is their life-blood. It supports the community's main source of income Chevron's oil drilling and pipeline and Blue Mountain Energy's coal mining. The open spaces are also widely popular for local recreation including hunting, fishing, off-road vehicles and hiking.
Now the public land, most of it managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is supporting a different type of interest, the endangered black-footed ferret.
Earlier this month, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the BLM released 38 ferrets, many fitted with monitoring devices for tracking, in the high plains surrounding Rangely. This is the first release of the black-footed ferret in Colorado and the ninth release in the United States since the early 1990s.
The land around Rangely is prime habitat for white-tailed prairie dogs, which black-footed ferrets depend on for shelter and food. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 36,000 acres of prairie dog colonies in the two management areas along Wolf Creek and the Coyote Basin. That habitat can support 32 families of ferrets.
"We chose Northwest Colorado because we had a hunch that a lot of prairie dogs were there (on a) lot of BLM land," said the Fish and Wildlife Service's Bob Leachman, who has worked on the project for 14 years.
Initially, officials were looking at the Little Snake River area, but bubonic plague outbreaks in the prairie dog population there shifted attention to Rangely.
Plague, the increase in agricultural land and a barrage of past prairie dog poisonings are among the reasons the black-footed ferret was considered extinct in the late '70s.
However, in 1981 a rancher in Meeteese, Wyo. discovered a colony of 130 ferrets on his land after his dog hunted and killed one of the animals. Canine distemper and plague was wiping out the colony in the mid 1980s until the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department collected the remaining 18 ferrets and created a captive breeding colony.
Since 1987, 3,000 ferrets were raised through the breeding program, which is named the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center and is relocating to a site near Fort Collins, Colo.
Today, two of those sites, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana and the Conata Basin in South Dakota, are consistently successful in wild breeding, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Officials hope the vast prairie dog habitat and low occurrence of plague outbreaks will make the Rangely site successful. But introducing an endangered species on public land around Rangely was not expected to be an easy process.
"The majority of this town is built on energy extraction," Jim DeWitt, secretary-treasurer and founding president of the White River Land Users, a community group that works to protect the user rights on surrounding public land.
Because of the restriction of the Endangered Species Act, "there was a fear at first that we might lose our land," for business and recreation, DeWitt said. But as Rangely locals found out, the black-footed ferret reintroduction colonies are considered "experimental, nonessential" populations.
"It basically gives flexibility on what you can and can't do," said Mike Lockhart, who is in charge of black-footed ferret reintroductions for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
He said the ferrets, though still listed as endangered, won't be under the strict protection of the Endangered Species Act. Instead, wildlife officials organize a work group to hammer out a management plan that fits with the ethics of the community.
DOW biologist Ed Hollowed organized the work group in Rangely, which was made up of wildlife officials and representatives from local government, local businesses, and recreationalists.
"This wasn't as hard a job as Little Snake," Hollowed said, referring to similar community groups that were formed in the Little Snake River area to explain possible ferret reintroductions there. However, he admitted the idea of organizing conservative land users and energy extraction representatives to talk about protecting a ferret sounded daunting.
"But when you work with people one on one, it's surprising what you get," he said. "These people don't like being told what to do, but they are really generous when you ask them."
Through the plan the DOW and BLM have the right to impose "conditions of approval" on proposed land uses that could affect the prairie dog or ferret habitat, Hollowed explained, which means some use can be forced to change or stop if it is showing to adversely affect the ferrets. Essentially, the plan allows people to work and play around the ferrets in a "look but to don't touch" fashion.
According to the management plan, oil companies can still search and drill for oil, the coal mine is business as usual, grazing permits remain valid and recreational use remains more or less unaffected.
"The potential impacts to the land users were minimized," DeWitt said, whose land rights group largely participated in writing the plan. "There is nothing truly restrictive about it."
That has got some watchdog groups uneasy, who are concerned that the experimental population status and the loosely enforced protection from the management plan is not enough to ensure the black-footed ferret's protection.
Staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems Erin Robertson has two major concerns about the management plan. First, there are no restrictions on surface disturbances of the ferrets during mating season, which she said could affect the success of the mating process.
The second point has to do with hunting. "This will be the only sight where ferrets have been introduced where there is no prairie dog shooting closures," Robertson said. All other eight sites have some restriction on prairie dog hunting.
Both DeWitt and Hollowed said prairie dog hunting is common around Rangely. Robertson said allowing the hunting to go on puts the ferret population in danger.
"A single prairie dog shooter can make substantial impacts to individual colonies," she said. "If that's the colony where a black-footed ferret female is raising her kits . that means she'll be traveling further to find food."
That opens up more opportunity for the ferret's predators, such as raptor birds, to prey on the animal, Robertson said.
"It's a real lynchpin issue," Hollowed said.
He said there is no hard evidence to prove prairie dog hunting adversely affects ferrets, but recognized it is a concern of conservationists. Meanwhile, Rangely locals who were told their use of the land wouldn't change supported the hunting.
"The worst thing we could have done is start 'reneging' on promises we made," Hollowed said. "The plan may have fallen through."
That would have meant no reintroduction, which is something that Hollowed and Robertson said they didn't want to happen.
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