Black-Footed Ferret Pilgrimage

Throughout history, many people have undertaken a pilgrimage for religious reasons (the oracle at Delphi, the Holy Land, Mecca) or to pay homage (grave of Shakespeare, Graceland). Recently I made my own pilgrimage to pay homage to a very special place. Well, at least a very special to me: Meeteetse, Wyoming.

This small hamlet rests 30 miles south of Cody, not far from Yellowstone National Park, in northwest Wyoming. Nestled along the banks of the Greybull River, a population of 351 souls thrives on agriculture and tourism. Other than a speed limit of 30 miles per hour, there are no stoplights to slow travelers and many miss the small monument that rests just off the main drag. My eagle-eyed fiancée, April, spotted it right away, and we quickly pulled over. At the base of a statue of two ferrets lies a marker that reads “Home of the Black-Footed Ferret.” This is where it all began.

Across the street lies Lucille’s Café, a local eatery that is rich with black-footed ferret history. In 1981, when many people believed the black-footed ferret to be extinct, a ranch dog named Shep killed and brought home a tiny creature to his owners, John and Lucille Hogg. It was a black-footed ferret, and that is how the species was re-discovered. Biologists converged on Meeteetse to study this last-known population, and Lucille’s Café was an obvious hotspot for discussion, gossip and camaraderie among the biologists and the locals. Along one wall are pictures that drip with history, including a picture of that very first black-footed ferret killed by Shep. And in a framed photo collage of the women’s softball team, Lucille’s Ferreties, I recognize the coach and a player as black-footed ferret biologists.

The Meeteetse black-footed ferret population persisted until 1985 when the diseases sylvatic plague and canine distemper began to decimate the population. After much consternation, the decision was made to remove the remaining black-footed ferrets to attempt to save the species. In a race against time, biologists diligently captured the remaining animals but plague moved faster. By 1987, the last black-footed ferret was captured from the wild, bringing the total to 18 animals.

Almost 30 years later, many of those biologists are still involved with black-footed ferrets, some directly and others indirectly, working on plague, prairie dogs or prairie ecosystem conservation. I know several of them, and I relish the opportunity to discuss the Meeteetse black-footed ferrets and hear their stories. And I always take a moment to thank them for saving black-footed ferrets. I know they have poured their heart and soul into black-footed ferrets, in that way we share an unspoken kinship. Standing in Lucille’s Café, I can almost see and hear them in the 1980s — telling stories, talking with the locals and working to save a species.

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