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Geoff Liesik
A black-footed ferret checks out its new surroundings after being released into the wild in eastern Uintah County near the Utah-Colorado border Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is part of a national effort to reintroduce the ferrets into area that were once part of the species' historic range.
Many of the ferrets in Maxfield's group seemed uncertain of all the attention they were getting.

SNAKE JOHN REEF, Uintah County — The noise began almost as soon as the tailgate dropped on the pickup truck from Colorado. It was a nonstop, high-pitch chattering interspersed at times with prolonged hisses from inside the pet carriers stacked in the covered bed of the truck.

The 37 black-footed ferrets inside the carriers — almost all of them juveniles, known as "kits" — had traveled nearly 340 miles to reach the spot where Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists had decided to set them free. And they were met by a group of about 20 people, who gathered to take part in Friday's release.

"The ferret releases are always really popular," said DWR sensitive species biologist Brian Maxfield. "You get a hands-on experience with the animals."

The ferrets, brought to Utah from the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colo., after a preconditioning phase of at least 30 days, were divided into three groups for release in specific areas of eastern Uintah County. Maxfield took 11 of the animals to the Snake John Reef area, where white-tailed prairie dog populations are up this year.

"The ferrets eat almost exclusively prairie dogs, so they need a lot of prairie dogs to eat," he said. "And they're not the easiest, they're smaller than the prairie dogs — the ferrets are — so they need a big area to hunt so they can find the right prey."

Many of the ferrets in Maxfield's group seemed uncertain of all the attention they were getting.

While some hesitantly inched out of the pet carriers, others made a mad dash for freedom before poking their heads back up from their new underground homes to chatter or hiss at the people watching and photographing them. 

Jared Megown and his mother traveled from Cottonwood Heights to take part in the release. The 7-year-old described the experience as "awesome," but said he expected the ferrets to be "more smaller than they looked."

The black-footed ferret was first recognized by John James Audubon and the Rev. John Bachman in 1851. After that it was 26 years before another black-footed ferret sighting was reported.

The nocturnal hunters had a historic range throughout the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, stretching from Canada to Mexico. They were twice believed to be extinct — once in the 1950s and again in 1979 — and remain on the Endangered Species list.

Utah joined the national effort to reintroduce the ferrets to their historic range in 1999, with the DWR's first release in the Coyote Basin area of Uintah County. The animals are reproducing in the wild, but their survival hinges largely on the health of the prairie dog colonies in the area, Maxfield said.

"We do have disease issues with our prairie dogs," he said. "Sylvatic plague will get prairie dogs and severely drop their numbers quickly.

"We don't have a lot of (ferret) numbers, and we never will," Maxfield added. "This is just not a huge prairie dog colony with a dense population like you would find in South Dakota, so we're doing very well with regard to what we have."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik