CHEYENNE — Zoos are known for the viewing of rare and unusual animals. It is where wild animals are kept in captivity. In many cases, zoos are the only place to see wildlife that might come from regions halfway around the globe.
Today, though, the mission of zoos has expanded far beyond just putting animals on display. Often behind the scenes and well out of view of the visiting public, they provide valuable conservation measures for species on the brink or at least heading toward potential extinction.
Two species listed as endangered in Wyoming are getting a boost in recovery efforts from zoos: the Wyoming toad and the black-footed ferret.
Jeff Baughman, field conservation coordinator at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, said zoos are now very involved with conservation efforts. Both the Wyoming toad and black-footed ferret are being raised at the CMZ for release into the wild to bolster existing populations.
“In the last 10-15 years, zoos have taken a turn, and now many are involved in conservation efforts,” Baughman said.
Baughman said while a number of zoos are involved with raising Wyoming toads and black- footed ferrets, the CMZ is the only facility that raises both species. It helps that the zoo is just one state away, making reintroductions easier than for zoos and facilities farther away.
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until Sept. 26, 1981. That’s the day a dog named Shep happened to bring a dead ferret home and plopped it on the porch of his owner, John Hogg, on the Hogg Ranch near Meeteetse.
Subsequent spotlighting surveys resulted in a count of 127 ferrets by 1986, but just a year later, the population experienced a rapid decline. Canine distemper, a disease for which black-footed ferrets have no immunity, was diagnosed as the culprit.
In a move that had both supporters and detractors, the remaining ferrets were captured and moved to a new captive breeding facility at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Sybille Research Facility between Laramie and Wheatland. Only 18 ferrets were found, and that small number was the start of the captive breeding program.
These endangered ferrets are now raised at five zoos and at the federally owned Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, located just north of Fort Collins, Colorado.
Baughman said the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo became involved with black-footed ferrets in 1991, when the Sybille facility was shut down. To date, the zoo has raised 563 kits, with half of those being released at various reintroduction sites and half remaining in the breeding program.
“The process starts in the fall, where our facilities mimic the natural lighting that occurs at Meeteese,” Baughman said. Due to the need to maximize the genetic diversity of the ferret, pairings are not left up to Mother Nature. In fact, a computer program helps with ferrets being matched, often with a future mate at another facility.
Kits are born beginning in April, and then cared for at the zoo. As they get older, they are given live rodents so they can learn to hunt. They spend 35 days in what Baughman calls their “boot camp,” where the youngsters are introduced to prairie dogs, their primary prey in the wild, for the first time.
After boot camp, and when the young ferrets are about 90 days old, they are moved to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Pete Gober, coordinator for the facility, puts ferrets in outdoor pens for a minimum of 30 days.
“While in the pens for this ‘preconditioning,’ the young ferrets are exposed to natural burrow systems and have the opportunity to encounter live prairie dogs,” Gober said. “It is a setting that allows them to get used to more natural conditions.”
Thanks to the pens and netted covering, the ferrets are protected from predation while learning how to prey on prairie dogs. They experience the weather and other natural conditions for the first time. They are also vaccinated against canine distemper and plague before being released.
The black-footed ferret is far from recovery, but the species is moving in the right direction, with an estimated 300 individuals now in the wild. Currently, there are 29 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites, including two in Wyoming, spreading out to seven other states.
“We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket,” Gober said. “We have a number of reintroduction sites to protect the species as a whole from disease. The key problem limiting population growth in the wild is plague but, with time, we’re hoping the ferrets evolve to adapt to fend off the disease.”
The Wyoming toad was once plentiful, although it always only inhabited the Laramie Basin. It was first reported in 1946 by Dr. George Baxter, and was considered one of the most plentiful species in the Laramie Basin in the 1950s.
Rapid toad declines occurred in the 1970s, likely due to a number of factors, including the use of pesticides for mosquito control, water diversion and weather events. The primary factor that limits the recovery of the toad now is a fungus, called the chytrid fungus, which has been implicated in declines and extinctions of amphibian species worldwide.
Doug Keinath, recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is encouraged as toad numbers inch upward, although the numbers appear to be cyclic.
“At least is appears the lows in the population aren’t going quite as low, and the highs are getting higher,” Keinath said. “We are making progress, but it is a slow increase.”
Much of the propagation of the toads is in the hands of biologists – literally. Biologists raise the toads, beginning with eggs, going to tadpoles and then raising them into adult toads.
Currently, toads are being raised in seven zoos and three federal facilities. One of those zoos is the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
“We got involved with the toad in 1992 due to the closure of Wyoming Game and Fish Department facilities at Sybille, where they were raising toads,” Baughman said. “Up until 2013, we released only tadpoles, but then tried releasing year-old toads for the first time.”
The toads put on weight much faster in the laboratory than they would in the wild. As a result, when released, the toads are very “robust” and at breeding age.
To the delight of biologists, there is now evidence of wild breeding at several of the safe harbor sites in the Laramie Basin. Keinath said continued wild breeding could be the key to having the toads fend off the chytrid fungus, a non-native disease. With time, they could adapt to the disease and, eventually, the population cycle could be broken, where low-number years disappear.
“The toads are just really cool,” Keinath said when asked what he likes about them. “It’s exciting to see them return to the basin where they were once very plentiful.”
Baughman agrees and is also excited to see the toad numbers increase. The Laramie Basin provides just the right ingredients of weather, water conditions and suitable habitat. The toads are an isolated species, adapted “just so” to the Laramie Basin, which is why they aren’t found any other place on the planet.