The Black-Footed Ferret Twilight Zone

I’ve been mostly in the office the past three months, collating and analyzing data from 2008. It has given me a chance to go through my data sheets and field notes and reflect upon some of the experiences from 2008.

June 16, 2008
9 p.m., Monday
The ground has dried enough that we can finally spotlight for black-footed ferrets in the area called Agate for the first time since plague hit. We initially released BFFs into this area in 1996, and it has always been a productive area, yielding many litters of kits as a stalwart of the Conata Basin BFF population.

Norm from the U.S. Forest Service is with me again tonight, and I set him loose in an area we affectionately call The Twilight Zone. When spotlighting BFFs, a person typically uses certain landmarks or features, such as fences, hills, and stock ponds, to navigate in the dark. The Twilight Zone is mostly devoid of these navigational features. It’s also in a large area of prairie dog colony, about 1,700 acres. Since 1996, many spotlighters became lost in The Twilight Zone, bumping across that featureless portion of prairie while hoping to regain their directional bearings.

I can see the fire in his eyes when I ask Norm to spotlight The Twilight Zone. He happily answers yes, because he knows that area better than anyone and, despite Rod Serling’s best efforts, Norm doesn’t get lost.

June 17, 2008
12:20 a.m., Tuesday
The first three hours of the night I scour my portion of the prairie dog colony, looking for BFFs. I’ve found all the mud holes and made mental notes about which areas to avoid. It’s no fun having a pickup truck buried to the axles in the clay pan, gumbo mud of South Dakota.

12:21 a.m.
I find my first BFF of the night and set a trap.

1:40 a.m.
I catch a BFF in the first trap I set, a female, number 05-176, 3 years old. She gets her plague vaccination shot, and I dye-mark both sides of her neck black before I release her. Norm calls on the radio to tell me he caught a BFF, and I need to come over to vaccinate it.

2:15 a.m.
As Norm and I finish up with the BFF he caught, a female, we release her back into the burrow she was in. “I smell rain,” Norm says with the conviction of a nose raised on these South Dakota prairies. He’s right. I know it. I can smell it too as I look toward the western horizon, blackened with ominous storm clouds. Within minutes the wind starts to pick up. Without saying a word, Norm and I start to make our exit. I don’t like being stuck in the mud, especially in The Twilight Zone.

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