Buffalo Commons, The Haverfields, and Prairie Dogs

My very first post on Earthsvoices was about the heroic stand of Larry and Bette Haverfield and their work for the grasslands and the black-footed ferrets.  What many ranchers in western Kansas see as a “prairie dog problem” to Larry is really a problem of the lack of predators.  The destruction of prairie dog villages has destroyed the predators.  It’s all about balance, you see.

Larry’s daughter, Cathy,

English: Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys lud...

English: Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) at in Washington, D.C., USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

keeps me up to date on her father.  She recently emailed me an article by Wil S. Hylton in Harpers Magazine entitled Broken Heartland.  Larry and the prairie dogs‘ story begins at the bottom of page 11.

http://harpers.org/archive/2012/07/0083968

On a side note, Larry’s teacher and mentor, Allan Savory, is up for a 2013 TED talk.  The talk will focus on a wildlife grazing system that has been proven to reverse desertification of land.  Important stuff.  You can vote for him here: http://talentsearch.ted.com/video/Allan-Savory-How-wildlife-can-r;TEDJohannesburg%20target=

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Flavors of Spring

Five mile training run this morning.  Jasmine, roses, eucalyptus, and evergreen flavors filled the country air.

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Artists in the Back Country

During John Muir‘s time, artists, writers, and scientists went into the back country, into the wilderness.  When they returned, they shared their findings and feelings with the public.  “Artists in the Back Country”, a program of the Sequoia Park Foundations, has the goal to replicate that in today’s world.

In 2008, I was invited to be one of seven artists to spend 9 days in the Sierra Nevada wilderness with this amazing group.  The 2008 group included Hugo award winner Kim Stanley Robinson and National Geographic photographer, David Liittschwager.  I was excited, to say the least.

Arriving at the Cottonwood Backpack Station, we watched the packers pack hundreds of pounds on the 15 mules.

I was one of five to ride on a horse to our campsite of over 10,000 feet.

My horse Dennis was big and sure-footed.   Thank goodness.  We rode over lots of rocky trails.  I adored Dennis!

When I visit schools, one of the workshops available is “Artists in the Backyard”.  Using photos from my Sierra Nevada trip and others, I lead students into creating stories from the images.  Here are a few of those amazing images from high in the Sierra.

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Land Trusts, Toluma Farm, and lots of goats!

Land.  Growing up in a Kansas farming community I was surrounded by lots of it – beautiful, flat plains full of golden wheat.  Here in California, my friend Jean and I often walk the land in Marin and Sonoma County, both havens for farms, ranches, and open space.

We can thank MALT (Marin Agricultural Land Trust) for much of this sanctuary.  MALT has permanently protected nearly half of the working farms and ranchland in Marin County.  Nearly half!

A number of the ranches and farms offer wonderful tours and events through MALT.  It’s a grand way, especially for children from the suburbs and cities, to spend an afternoon in the country.  When Jean and I visited Toluma Farms, near Tomales, there was goat milking,

tours of the milk parlor, cheese making, hikes, kite flying, and views that went on forever.  Not a suburb or a Walmart in sight. Plenty of room for the goats, sheep, cows, deer and other wildlife.  Thank you MALT and all the individuals and agencies that support them. Maybe you’d like to support them too.  http://www.malt.org/

Goats! Lots of goats…on lots and lots of land.

Let's go fly a kite at Toluma Farms.

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30 years of helping the Black-footed ferret

September 26th marks the 30th anniversary of the discovery of what was believed to be the last 24 wild black-footed ferrets in North America.  Hooray for our beloved black-footed ferrets.  The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute has learned so much about ferret husbandry; this year fifty-one kits were born at SCBI.  Fifty survive. You can watch a ferretcam at the National Zoo here:http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/NorthAmerica/default.cfm

Black-footed Ferret Mustela nigripes at Louisv...

Image via Wikipedia

 

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Blessings to Gaia on Earth Day

Each of us is part of the earth.  With that blessing comes responsibility. Each of us must do our part to protect our earth, its resources, its wildlife. Some people celebrate Earth Day on March 20th, the first day of spring. Some celebrate on April 22nd.  We should really celebrate every day. Look outside at Sky, Trees, Flowers, Birds.  Celebrate our blessings. Happy Earth Day, Mother Earth.  May your Beauty endure for 7 generations and beyond.

Radiance

Glory of the Acacia Tree

Glory of the Acacia Tree

Radiance
Red Fox

Gray Fox

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Of road trips, heroes, and Black-footed ferrets

Traveling the back roads near Massadona, Colorado, I looked out the car window and saw a wisp of a dream. Most experts would say I imagined that wisp on August 26, 1975. Whether imagined or real, it led to an adventure and a life-long love affair with the black-footed ferret, North America’s rarest mammal. Always a mysterious creature, secretive and rarely seen, they were not recognized as a species until 1851. Mustela nigripes.

Most people I talk with have never heard of the black-footed ferret.  In the early 1800’s, when Lewis and Clark crossed the great grasslands of North America, the barking of prairie dogs filled the air.   Alongside the prairie dogs was another mammal – their predator, the smaller black-footed ferret. Billions of prairie dogs from Mexico to Canada have been reduced to less than 1% of their original population. The black-footed ferrets, which were never large in number, declined as the prairie dogs did, for prairie dogs are virtually their only food source.  In the 1970’s, the black-footed ferrets were feared to be extinct.

Still my husband and I stopped at Dinosaur National Monument headquarters, nearly two hours down the road. We were cautious as we entered. We knew they’d think we were having hallucinations if we told them we thought we’d seen the rare, possibly extinct, nocturnal black-footed ferret in broad daylight.  So we casually asked, “Were there ever black-footed ferrets in this area?” Not another word was needed.   Immediately, we were escorted into a back room where a ranger listened attentively to our story. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t accuse us of having hallucinations.  I suspect he was surprised we knew what a black-footed ferret was, let alone their history. “Where do you think you saw it?” he asked. “Do you have time to take me back to the area?”

The adventure began.   We traveled back to the site, got out of our cars, and walked onto the prairie. The ranger confirmed trenching around the prairie dog holes, evidence of ferrets. He took our names and address and thanked us.  Then we went our separate ways, dreaming of small masked mammals.

By February 1976, the ferrets had moved to the back of my mind.  (It’s interesting to note,  some resources state that in the late 1970s, no known black-footed ferrets lived in the wild.)  Still, a letter arrived from the United States Department of the Interior, thanking us for stopping at Dinosaur headquarters and sharing that another observation had been reported a few weeks later.  Our sightings, along with signs of trenching, provided “evidence of the presence of ferrets.” The wisp grew clearer in my mind.

It was over thirty years later, through a series of happy coincidences, that the black-footed ferret entered my life again.  I’d heard that captive-bred ferrets were being released on a ranch in western Kansas at the same time I was doing author visits in the area.  Ron Klataske, Executive Director of Audubon of Kansas, connected me with the ranchers, Larry and Bette Haverfield, who invited me to drop by after my school visit, on October 9th, 2008.  (It had been less than a year since the first ferrets were released on the ranch.) “Dropping by” meant traveling on deserted dirt roads, where no GPS had gone before.  I didn’t see another car for over half an hour. Breathing a sigh of relief, I finally arrived at the Haverfield ranch.  Larry smiled at me, leaning against his truck.  Bette invited me in for antelope stew.

The Haverfield ranch in Logan County

The Haverfield ranch in Logan County, Kansas

Bette and Larry are two of the most welcoming, gracious people I know. Larry spent the afternoon showing me around the 10,000 acre ranch, sharing his belief that rotational grazing, “buffer” areas,  and the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets would bring predators and prey into balance and be good for his cattle too.

Marsha and prairie dog hole

Down the prairie dog hole

Bette and Larry Haverfield

My heroes

The Haverfield Ranch - Prairie Wildlife Stewards

Plaque from Defenders of Wildlife - Prairie Wildlife Stewards

Research sources differ, but most agree that in 1986/87 the Wyoming Game and Fish Department captured the last remaining ferrets in the wild (most sources say 14) to be added to 6 in captivity. Due to recovery programs, careful reintroduction, and heroic wildlife stewards, the total population is now thought to be around 1500, a precariously small population for any mammal, even one that is considered rare.

Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species, vital for other plants and animals in the short-grass prairie, including burrowing owls, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, and golden eagles.  But in the 1900s they were poisoned until their numbers plummeted.  As the prairie dogs disappeared, so did other prairie wildlife.

After those first ferrets were released on the Haverfield ranch, Larry and Bette began their struggle.  Logan County was determined to poison prairie dog colonies on all ranch land, even on land where owners didn’t want the poison, like Larry and Bette’s, Gordon and Martha Barnhardt’s, and Maxine Blank’s.  Not only that, the prairie dogs were to be poisoned with “secondary” poison, which not only kills the prairie dogs, but kills any animal that eats them during the time they’re dying – hawks, eagles, fox, badgers…black-footed ferrets.

During the time of this struggle, a newspaper article ran this headline:  “One against hundreds.” That “one” was Larry.

I last spoke with my heroes, Larry and Bette Haverfield, in early March of this year. Their long struggle to save their wildlife habitat has, for the moment, prevailed, although Logan County is appealing.

In February 2011, Black-footed ferret specialist Travis Livieri and Larry spent several nights spotlighting, a way of surveying, to count and check on the ferrets.  Larry had not seen any prairie dogs for weeks.  Worries of plague subsided as they found ferret after ferret.  Travis placed “collars” or chip readers on burrows and replaced batteries in them. If the ferret comes close to the collar and the ferret has a chip, the collar will read it. As breeding season is upon them now, the collars are a way to count and keep track of the ferrets without undue disruption.

The specialist of specialists, Dean Biggins, arrived on the scene to do more spotlighting with Larry and Travis.  It was confirmed that the prairie dogs had gone into semi-hibernation and for the time, all is well.  About 75 ferrets now call the Haverfield ranch home.  May the Black-footed ferrets and all animals that inhabit the prairie “live long, and prosper.”

March 14th -17th and 21st-24th, conservation stewards will arrive at the Haverfield ranch to “spotlight” and to collar the prairie dog holes.  I’d hoped to be with them, but will not make it this month.  Perhaps later this year.

If you want to smile, check out this amazing video of a Black-footed ferret and a prairie dog confrontation:

And if you want to get even happier, watch the Black-footed ferret’s happy dance:  This dance footage is from “Return of the Prairie Bandit”, a documentary by filmmaker Kenton Vaughan about the return of the ferret to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. The film is now showing in Canada. We hope it will soon be available in the United States.  Keep in touch at prairiewildlife.org or join them on Facebook.

Thank you to:

Larry and Bette Haverfield, prairie stewards and wildlife heroes.

Gordon and Martha Barnhardt

Maxine Blank

Travis Livieri, who is leading the black-footed ferret revival in North America, and who graciously shared information and the two ferret photos you see on this site.

Dean E. Biggins, expert on black-footed ferrets, polecats, and other species. He was involved in what he calls “the unsavory task” of trapping the last free-ranging black-footed ferrets, in the attempt to save them.  That attempt, for the present, was successful.

Read more about the black-footed ferrets and the continuing saga at Audubon of Kansas and Prairie Wildlife

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