A few hours past midnight, Randy Matchett lumbers into the darkness searching for the most endangered land mammal in North America. His spotlight catches the jade-green eyes of Montana No. 68, a female black-footed ferret.
Mr. Matchett, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is ecstatic because this sighting of No. 68 represents the first time in months that her survival has been confirmed. And in the science of ferret conservation, every animal counts.
Millions of dollars have been spent on recovery efforts, and the weasel-like predators have become emblems for what is both right and wrong with trying to rescue single species through the Endangered Species Act. It is a quest that points out the complex interrelationships between fauna, federal policies, and ranchers trying to make a living on the Western prairie.
At the center of the battle to save the black-footed ferret is the prairie dog - the only thing this ferret will eat. In many parts of the West, prairie dogs are looked upon as vermin that ruin grazing lands for cattle. And although they receive sanctuary in national wildlife refuges, prairie dogs are not a protected species. Indeed, hunters can use prairie dogs for target practice on federal Bureau of Land Management holdings, and until recently, the practice was promoted using taxpayer dollars.
Because of shootings, poisoning, disease, and habitat loss, prairie dogs have vanished from 98 percent of the 700 million acres they inhabited in the mid-1800s - mirroring the demise of American bison last century, says Jonathan Proctor of Predator Project, a group that supports prairie dog conservation.
For now, however, the push to save black-footed ferrets has led to a tenuous truce between cattle interests and federal officials. Yet Ken Blunt, a local rancher who relies on public grassland to graze his cattle, is concerned that prairie dog towns in wildlife refuges will expand onto other public lands.
"Most of us are not against the ferret, but we worry the government will put restrictions on land use to accommodate prairie dogs," he says. "The Fish and Wildlife Service says everything will be fine, but it's not easy to trust them when they don't do a very good job of keeping us informed."
TO Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the outcome of this delicate balancing act is crucial because it will echo all the way to Washington, where Congress is reevaluating the Endangered Species Act.
"As Congress debates a law that is fundamentally aimed at preventing extinctions, it also debates the balance between the value of restoration and economic security," Ms. Clark says. "Why is it important to try and save individual species? I don't think anyone has reached the height of biological arrogance to decide [which species] should go and which should stay."
Meanwhile, government officials say they have every intention of proving that endangered species and traditional land uses need not be at odds. A special provision of the Endangered Species Act allows for greater flexibility in minimizing conflicts, says John Hedrick, manager of the wildlife refuge that has jurisdiction over the UL Bend Refuge. "We view our work with the ferret as a way the system is supposed to work," he says.
Prior to 1981, when a tiny remnant population was accidentally discovered near Meeteetse, Wyo., the black-footed ferret was considered extinct. And although reestablishing natural populations has been hampered by diseases in prairie dog colonies, ferret reintroduction has shown promise at the UL Bend Refuge, the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and in South Dakota.
But the government's objective to attain a wild, free-ranging population of 1,500 ferrets by 2010 may be too ambitious, say policymakers. The politics of protecting prairie dogs are divisive, and little is known about ferret ecology. "Anything we do is a new experiment," says ferret-seeker Matchett. "We're on the cutting edge because the book's not written yet on ferret reintroduction."