If you’ve visited Petrified Forest National Park, you’ll remember it is Arizona’s big sky country. Grasslands, badland hills, and rocky mesas are the predominant landforms in a wide variety of colors.
For over 100 years, similar lands outside the changing park boundary have been used for grazing cattle. The grasslands are also the natural home of Gunnison’s prairie dogs. In the last few years, since the park has acquired lands (as authorized by Congress in the Petrified Forest Expansion Act of 2004) previously grazed by neighboring ranches, it has taken a more active management approach with Gunnison’s prairie dogs.
All prairie dogs are susceptible to the plague, which is transmitted by fleas —up to 99% of a prairie dog colony can be wiped out if the disease gets into the population. Park biologists believe this has happened in waves historically, with populations growing for several years until the plague returns to knock it back and the cycle continues.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department began reintroducing endangered black-footed ferrets to their natural grassland environment in 1996. Black-footed ferrets were nearly extinct— the last population was discovered in 1981 in Wyoming.
At its low point, before the last animals were placed in a captive breeding program, there were only 18 ferrets left. From these 18, reintroduction efforts in several states, including Arizona, have evolved. Arizona has released 35 animals so far. Black-footed ferrets subsist almost exclusively on prairie dogs.
With thousands of acres of prairie dog habitat, Petrified Forest has begun working with Arizona Game and Fish to map prairie dog colonies, monitor their number, and prevent plague from returning to knock back population size.
The long-term goal is for Petrified Forest to be considered a black-footed ferret reintroduction site. This requires that there be a population of prairie dogs that is large enough to sustainably support a small population of black-footed ferrets — over 5,000 acres.
Entering the summer of 2018, the population of prairie dogs in the park is estimated at about 100 animals in 14 small and scattered colonies, occupying about 300 acres, far from the population required to be considered. Park staff, with help from Arizona Game and Fish, will start applying flea repellent “dust” to all burrows in June. They will also leave behind oral plague vaccine for the prairie dogs, which inoculates the animals against plague.
The summer of 2018 will also see the translocation of 100 Gunnison’s prairie dogs to Petrified Forest from a single colony in the way of a construction project in the Flagstaff area. The Flagstaff-based non-profit group Habitat Harmony, Arizona Game and Fish, and Petrified Forest, with help from the Friends of Petrified Forest, will team together to place these 100 animals in human-constructed burrows in the park.
In order to protect the animals and to be able to track the outcome of the translocation, the animals will be tagged and restricted to their new burrows and provided supplemental feeding until they are acclimated. Family groups will remain together, which is important for their social structure.
Translocations, treatments to keep plague at bay, and annual monitoring and mapping are all active ways that Petrified Forest National Park and Arizona Game and Fish, along with their partners, are creating conditions that will place the former ranch lands of Petrified Forest as a reintroduction site for black-footed ferrets, thereby returning the park closer to its natural ecosystem.