Black-footed ferrets are an endangered species. While estimates vary, according to the World Wildlife Fund, there are approximately 300 black-footed ferrets in the wild. Since 2013, there has been an effort to reintroduce the ferrets at Fort Belknap. Thanks to drones, the job has gotten much easier.
It took over nine weeks, to map the 7,500 acres of Fort Belknap last summer. This year, the team plans to map the first 1,000 acres in just three days with the help of a drone. At that rate, last years sample could be collected in just under twenty three days. Talk about an increase in efficiency.
If the project goes as expected, then we may see drones taking an expanded role. Kristy Bly, a conservation biologist at the World Wildlife Fund who is leading the efforts to reintroduce the ferrets at Fort Belknap in Montana, said she could “see using thermal cameras attached to drones to track the population of black-footed ferrets, a task she said in the past was a herculean amount of work.”
The two-pound ferrets have been an endangered species since 1967. As agriculture spread across the U.S. plains in the early 1900s, the population of prairie dogs plummeted due to extermination campaigns. Black-footed ferrets were the next domino to fall, as they relied on prairie dog colonies as a habitat and food source.
There are efforts to reintroduce black-footed ferrets in eight states, but they face funding constraints. The hope for this pilot test is that by using drones and 3D mapping software, researchers can quickly and cheaply count prairie dog boroughs in order to estimate the size and density of their populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the reintroduction of ferrets, relies on those numbers to determine whether an environment is suited for the reintroduction of ferrets.
“Instead of having two guys spend all summer mapping prairie dog colonies, this is a way to use technology to fill out that same data more accurately,” said Kristy Bly, a conservation biologist at the World Wildlife Fund who is leading the efforts to reintroduce the ferrets at Fort Belknap in Montana.
About Black-footed Ferrets
The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), also known as the American polecat or prairie dog hunter, is a species of mustelid native to central North America. It is listed as endangered by the IUCN, because of its very small and restricted populations. First discovered by Audubon and Bachman in 1851, the species declined throughout the 20th century, primarily as a result of decreases in prairie dog populations and sylvatic plague. It was declared extinct in 1979 until Lucille Hogg’s dog brought a dead black-footed ferret to her door in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. That remnant population of a few dozen ferrets lasted there until the animals were considered extinct in the wild in 1987. However, a captive breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in its reintroduction into eight western states and Mexico from 1991–2008.
About Fort Belknap
Fort Belknap Agency is a census-designated place (CDP) in Blaine County, Montana, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the CDP population was 1,293. Fort Belknap Agency is located at(48.468779, -108.755390). According to the United States Census Bureau, the CDP has a total area of 45.8 square miles (118.5 km2), of which 45.5 square miles (117.8 km2) is land and 0.27 square miles (0.7 km2), or 0.56%, is water.