The National Biological Service and Weasels

Published October 1, 2000

“The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was a charter member of endangered species lists for North America long before the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973,” wrote Dean Biggins and Jerry Godbey for the National Biological Service’s 1995 report, Our Living Resources.

The article below, written that year by Congressman Bob Schaffer while he was a state senator in Colorado, offers a compelling case for caution when it comes to government management of endangered species. Schaffer, elected to Congress in 1996, urges a return to property rights and America’s tradition of private conservation.

Horror spread fast through the Rocky Mountain region when news broke of the ill-fated shipment of ferrets. Eight of them recently left their home at Wyoming’s Sybille Canyon Research Center bound for Pueblo, Colorado. Seven met their maker during the six-hour, non-stop journey in a Chevy Suburban. Locals were thoroughly outraged.

The National Biological Service (NBS), which arranged the migration, said the temperature in the back of the Suburban apparently rose to 80 degrees or more, despite the use of air conditioning. Only the ferret nearest the front survived.

The stricken animals were not your every-day members of the weasel family. These were Mustela nigripes, the black-footed ferret. Spot one of these fabled creatures scurrying across your land and you’ve got big trouble: Endangered Species Act trouble.

Since 1974 the sleek, elusive black-footed ferret was feared extinct, until a small group of them was discovered on a Wyoming ranch in 1981. By 1987, only 18 were known to exist. But today, about 300 black-footed ferrets exist in captivity.

Make that 293.

NBS itself catching some heat

Ironically, the National Biological Service (NBS) was created by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to protect rare animals, including the black-footed ferret. But the NBS has been catching a little heat of its own lately–not just for cooking $42,000 worth of endangered species, but for its nasty reputation as a gang of environmental activists who destroy jobs, devalue property, trespass on private land, and depress human enterprise, all in the name of preserving endangered species.

To ranchers and farmers, an NBS agent with a truckload of black-footed ferrets is like the Unabomber with franking privileges. That, and the fact that the agency was created by the Clinton Administration without congressional authorization, has many Western lawmakers looking for ways to trim the NBS budget or eliminate the agency entirely.

Many Westerners object to the government’s tactics when it comes to “preserving” endangered species. Because the law penalizes private property owners if an endangered species is found on their land, some farmers feel driven to follow the “Three S’s: shoot, shovel, and shut up,” despite the risk of serious legal consequences.

Any private citizen convicted of “taking and harming” an endangered species (sort of like the NBS did with those seven ferrets) would be subject to civil fines of up to $25,000 per animal, and criminal fines reaching as high as $50,000 each. Of course, the NBS’s little accident will go unpunished. They were just trying to help.

Feds no friends of ferrets

NBS workers transported the seven ferret carcasses to the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for autopsies before issuing a press release.

Although initial inspection of the animals indicated heat stress, the NBS now claims bacterial infection may have been involved in the deaths of the seven endangered weasels. This “half-baked” theory failed to suppress public ridicule of the agency. In fact, cynicism and speculation are now even more rampant.

If all of the dead ferrets really were infected, is it possible that other black-footed ferrets back at the Sybille Wildlife Research Center are infected, too?

A subsequent exposé by the Denver Post revealed not just infection, but plague, and genetic failures caused by excessive inbreeding. All of this has cast serious doubt as to whether the black-footed ferret will ever get off the endangered species list.

Not that this would be the first time the government endangered the black-footed ferret population. After turning loose some 200 ferrets in four Shirley Basin Wyoming releases since 1991, wildlife officials count only a few survivors there. Once released, 80 to 90 percent of the captive-bred ferrets became easy dinner for owls, eagles, hawks, coyotes, and the ferrets’ cousins, badgers. Apparently, the captive-bred ferrets lacked necessary survival skills . . . which is precisely what prompted that fateful interstate trip to Pueblo.

Had the seven unlucky ferrets endured their infections, genetic defects, and the sultry Chevy Suburban, they would have received two months’ survival training in “preconditioning pens” in Pueblo.

The Pueblo facility is the latest drill in ferret readiness. Part boot camp and part half-way house for weasels, the preconditioning pens are designed to give the ferrets their basic training. Here they learn survival skills and are taught how to rough it in the great outdoors. Upon passing this course, the ferrets would be thrown back into the Suburban and transported to a predetermined release site.

That’s how the government guarantees taxpayers have put the maximum amount of resources behind the weasels before hungry coyotes get a chance to eat them all.

By now, most Westerners consider themselves unwilling experts on the black-footed ferret. Few have actually seen one, but everyone knows of their stealth and cunning. They always seem to show up at the most inconvenient times.

Before developing vacant land or plowing new ground, for example, landowners must hire “Weasel Inspectors” who case the property, issue a certificate confirming the absence of black-footed ferrets, and then collect a handsome fee for their service.

What next for endangered species?

In September 1996, the National Biological Service was brought under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), becoming that agency’s Biological Resources Division. Supporters of the black-footed ferret lamented the move, saying the NBS is the most qualified to preserve the species because it best understands the animal.

That might, in fact, be true. The NBS is learning firsthand what it’s like to be near extinction. Since its creation in 1993 by order of Interior Secretary Babbitt, Republicans have questioned the legitimacy of the agency. If left unchallenged, the new-agency-by-fiat practice would establish a dangerous precedent, allowing cabinet heads to unilaterally expand the scope of the federal government.

Moving the agency to the USGS is not the only option. Privatizing or contracting out more of the Interior Department’s research should be considered as a way to eliminate expensive overhead and promote objective science.

Moreover, federal conservation efforts should rely far more on incentive-based programs to enlist the cooperation of America’s landowners and reinvigorate their conservation ethic.

Some proponents of the NBS will undoubtedly brand Republicans as mindless budget-cutters who lack compassion for endangered species and the environment. In the case of the NBS, however, the debate is not merely about saving money.

The NBS debate is important because it typifies the conflict between landowners and the government. It forces us to confront environmental activism and a government on auto-pilot. It also calls upon Americans to reaffirm their Constitutional commitment to property rights.

Failure to resolve these issues on the side of common sense and American tradition will only hasten the day when property rights go the way of the black-footed ferret.