SELIGMAN, AZ – SELIGMAN, Ariz. -- When night falls, a group of well-caffeinated volunteers with high-powered lights go on a special mission. For five long nights, they carefully search the desert to try and find a tiny and stealthy creature -- the black-footed ferret.
The animal is on the critically endangered species list. So the Arizona Game and Fish Department has enlisted the help of a group of volunteers to look for the remaining ones to make sure they are properly tracked and have the right boosters that will keep them alive and healthy.
“Ferrets are nocturnal, so we're out all night with high-powered spotlights and we look for their green eye shine, it’s really brilliant green like a Mountain Dew can,” said Jennifer Cordova, an Arizona Game & Fish wildlife specialist.
Cordova places volunteers in teams and they break off into different sections of the valley, either driving at slow speeds while shining their spotlights on the grasslands or by walking and carrying high-powered lights. She said it can be rough pulling all-nighters and searching for the ferrets for hours and hours -- to no avail.
The Aubrey Valley, where many of the black-footed ferrets reside, is an area with 100,000 acres of grasslands and 50,000 acres of prairie dog colonies (prairie dogs are the ferrets’ prey). Holly Hicks, Arizona Game and Fish’s nongame small mammal projects, said it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
“Ferrets are very curious animals, so some of the best ways to try to track them and find them is just by driving up and down roads or walking (in) some of those prairies…we could not do this without our volunteer base…we’re a crew of four people and there’s only so much ground we can cover on our own,” Hicks said.
The program is designed to keep track of the black-footed ferret population. In 2012, they found 123. Last year, they found nine. Officials estimate there are only 400 black-footed ferrets left.
"That’s a big change from 123 to 9. So, they’re still out there, they’re just harder to find,” Cardova said.
Once black-footed ferrets are found, they are sedated and taken to a processing facility that is set up in an RV as veterinarians or officials from U.S. Fish and Wildlife check to see if they are micro-chipped and if they need a booster shot. The ferrets are then released back into the wild.
Biologists say they are unsure why the population keeps declining.
“We’re trying to figure out why,” Cordova said. “If it’s disease, predation, they’re dispersing, drought...because we still have a pretty good prairie dog population."
The black-footed ferrets prey on prairie dogs so it was once thought that elimination programs for the dogs, considered a nuisance to farmers and ranchers, were impacting the ferret population.
Now, there was a concerted effort by the state to rebuild the black-footed ferret population.
On a recent day, volunteers made their way to small-town Seligman and met for training on the first night inside a rented home in a rural neighborhood that Arizona Game and Fish uses for the operation.
One of those volunteers is Robert Coonrod, who bought a pick-up truck and rigged it with overhead lights specifically for the night-time searches. Coonrod has been volunteering for five years. Though he’s not a biologist, he enjoys helping out wildlife and found a new photography hobby while volunteering.
“We're looking for a ferret to be outside his hole. We drive down, he gets curious, looks at the lights, you see the green eyes shine, and then it's off to the races,” Coonrod said.
Once the animal is spotted, volunteers run toward it and set up a trap. But they have to first hopscotch around prairie dog burrows that dot the landscape.
“Sometimes it can be very entertaining watching people run across a prairie dog colony because you're so focused on the ferret that you forget about all these holes on the ground,” Hicks said. “Yeah, every one of us has tripped and fallen in a prairie dog hole after chasing after a ferret.”
With freezing temperates on the first night of the search, around 10 of the volunteers showed up, including Arizona State Univerisity biology graduate Angelica Varela, who will soon be starting an internship with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
“(When I started) volunteering (for other wildlife organizations) and really getting boots on the ground and realizing the hard work that actually goes into it, it's really important and it's really satisfying being able to know that you had a part in helping a species," Varela said. "As conservation work, I mean we're doing this so that eventually we don't have to keep doing it.”
Varela drove up from Phoenix with her friend, Brandi Kapos, who is an Olive Garden waitress and an ASU conservation biology graduate. She’s looking to return to school to get a master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems.
Before Varela and Kapos got their assignment from Cordova for the night, they said they had energy drinks and candy. Varela said she was “pumped.”
Cordova said the goal is to get the black-footed ferret off the endangered species list.
“It's important because wildlife don't have a say -- they don't have a voice out there,” Hicks said. “So, it's people like us who manage and try to keep that voice out there and people aware. Our passion comes from a lot of places. We love animals. We want to see wildlife in the future for future generations.”
Only found in North America, this wild animal differs from the European “pet” ferrets that are domesticated. The black-footed ferret was once thought extinct until 18 were found in 1981. Since then, recovery and breeding efforts have helped the black-footed ferret population grow.
“I kind of feel like it’s our duty," Varela said, "to help bring back the species that wouldn't have been endangered in the first place if it wasn't for us."