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Citizen Scientists Make Arizona Game And Fish Black-Footed Ferrets Project Possible
Babies are born natural scientists, exploring the world and discovering how things work. But few grow up to be scientists. In our five-part Citizen Science series, we look at how everyday citizens are contributing to science with the help of trained professionals.
It had been a long night already.
By 2 a.m., we had racked up at least half a dozen false alarms: three badgers, a porcupine, more cottontails and desert jackrabbits than we could count, even a nightjar. But, so far, no sign of the animal that we’d driven four hours and sacrificed a night’s sleep to find: Mustela nigripes, the black footed ferret.
Fellow volunteer Kevin Haycraft, a biology conservation and ecology student at Arizona State University, calls for our group leader, Robert Coonrod, to stop his truck. He says he has seen one.
We’ve heard it before, but we have to check. After all, it is what we are here for.
For 11 years, volunteer citizen scientists have gathered near Seligman, Arizona, to help spot, capture and release endangered black-footed ferrets.
The survey is part of a program created by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to monitor a population of captive-bred ferrets that wildlife specialists began reintroducing to Aubrey Valley 20 years ago.
This year, as part of the Arizona Science Desk’s citizen science special report, I have joined them.
We clomp across the moonlit scrub, the blinding LED bars of Coonrod’s truck throwing stark, confused shadows across uneven ground.
Haycraft’s handheld spotlight draws our eyes to a distant hole, where, moments ago, two bright green dots had bobbed out of sight: The telltale eyeshine of North America’s sole native ferret.
Out here, false alarms are as common as twisted ankles. Coonrod – a volunteer who has been spotlighting much longer than we two novices, and who has kitted out his entire truck for these spotlighting excursions – steps knee-deep into an old burrow. It’s easy to do.
We had come across our prospect by slowly following an assigned route, tracing it across a map dotted with color-coded circles. Earlier, someone had walked transects across this land, looking for active prairie dog burrows and mapping them to give us a fighting chance.
Why prairie dogs? Because black-footed ferrets hunt them, then live and breed in their burrows – or, as Coonrod puts it:
“If you think about it, they are nature’s home invader. They literally wait until the prairie dogs go to sleep, then break into their house, kill them, eat them, stay there until they get hungry again.”
Map or no map, ferrets keep late hours, and tired eyes play tricks.
To make matters worse, nearly every animal that keeps these late hours has some kind of eyeshine – a light-reflecting quality caused by a reflective layer behind the retina called the tapetum lucidum.
The tapetum lucidum improves low-light vision by bouncing photons back through light-detecting cells, giving them a second chance at detection.
Sure, the eyeshines of most other animals out here differ from those of our quarry – coyotes and foxes shine bluish green, whereas cottontails and desert jackrabbits glow pinkish orange – but such details are often lost in a pair of dots glimpsed briefly at a distance.
Did I mention that badger eyeshine looks the same as ferret eyeshine? Both are light green. Although there are differences in how the animals move – ferrets poke their heads up, then down, and up again, whereas badgers tend to “waddle” – they’re not as helpful as you might think (hence the false alarms I mentioned earlier).
Worst of all, there’s no guarantee that we’ll see anything. In fact, according to Coonrod, the fact that we’ve seen as many animals as we have is a bit of an anomaly.
“I’ve literally sat in this car for a full eight hours, not seen nothing. So I really don’t think you’re getting how special this night is,” Coonrod says.
So what brings scores of volunteers out each year? What makes them do it, even when there’s no guarantee of success – or, indeed, anything but boredom?
Part of it derives from the desire to do some good. Another stems from the excitement of possibly experiencing a personal encounter – under the desert moon, with David Attenborough’s mellifluous voice narrating in your head – with bona fide wild animal.
But there’s something more fundamental at work here, too: As wildlife specialist Jennifer Cordova had explained earlier that evening, we’re needed.
Training the Volunteers
“Here in Aubrey Valley, our core reintroduction area is probably about 50,000 acres," Cordova said. "So, there’s three people on the ferret project right now. That would be a lot for us to survey, so we really depend on our volunteers.”
Cordova and I had spoken prior to my training at the field station – part crash pad, part office, part library of curiosities. Among the skulls and raptor posters, she told me about volunteers from Africa, the U.K. and across the U.S.
“We have great volunteers. They come out, they stay up all night with us. They keep coming back, event after event, even if they don’t catch a ferret," Cordova said. "So, I mean, people enjoy it, and they’ve kind of become our family."
Some, like Valerie Matthews, keep coming back. Matthews and I chatted as we waited for the other trainees to show up. Not that she needs it. The training is for her students.
“I’ve been coming at least once a year since 2009,” Matthews said.
“I now come out here at least twice a year. It does mean flying from Ohio; it does mean that I am doing it right in the middle of the semester – I’m staying up all night and then trying to take a flight home and change time zones and go back to class on Wednesday morning a complete zombie – but I warn my students about that ahead of time.”
Matthews is a professor of animal behavior at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. As such, she is not the sort of trained volunteer we think of as a citizen scientist, but she knows – and shows – how this project affects people. They rearrange their lives around it. They recruit. Some of Matthews’s students flew here on their own dime. As we spoke, they were playing cards in the next room.
“What I’m getting to do is show them real field work, real science, you know, out, trying to make a difference,” Matthews said.
Finally, other recruits arrived in twos and threes, the handful of amateur adults vastly outnumbered by a vanload of Phoenix charter school students. We were nervous and excited, but our trainer, wildlife technician Heather Heimann, put us at ease.
First we learned a bit of grim history, encapsulated by a black-and-white photo depicting piled-up prairie dog bodies. Taken near Williams, Arizona, it was reminder of how westward-moving pioneers had used poison and plow to wipe out the ferret’s main food source – and the ferrets, too, or so experts had once thought.
Native black-footed ferrets had been listed as endangered in 1967. By the mid-1970s, wildlife biologists had considered the species extinct in the wild.
Then, in 1981, a small population of black-footed ferrets had turned up in Wyoming.
Soon after, captive breeding facilities, including the Phoenix Zoo and the Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, had parlayed 18 Wyoming survivors into a population with a fighting chance at reintroduction.
In 1996, our site, Aubrey Valley, had been selected as one of eight reintroduction sites in the U.S. and Mexico for that purpose.
In 2001, AzGF had found its first set of wild-born kits.
Through our survey, says the video, we will help to track the success of the program. The hope is that one day, the populations will become self-sustaining, and we’ll all be out of a job.
After the videos, Heimann demonstrated how to use the spotlights and set the traps. She walked us through recording the data and explained the safest way to bring our fierce fuzzies in for a checkup. Finally, she walked us through the “all-important data sheet.”
“Biology isn’t complete without a data sheet.”
After all, she explained, data collection was part of our job. No matter what we saw, or thought we saw, we would need to track the date, the route number, time and GPS coordinates. We would have to indicate whether we saw eyeshine, saw the animal or actually set a trap.
Finally, Heimann drove home the importance of visual confirmation: Last night, she said, someone trapped a skunk. Extricating it from the trap had been … challenging.
I’m still mulling over this warning, and going through Heimann’s trap-setting instructions, as we prepare to set our trap: A yard-long wire tunnel with a built-in pressure plate that slams the door behind anything that trips it.
The trap itself is square, four inches on a side, but it is modified on the entry end with a six-inch-long circular wire tube about the size of a wire coffee can. The trick is to jam the trap tube-first into an active burrow so that it is orientated like an extension of the tunnel.
That done, we wrap the whole contraption in burlap to keep it dark, like the tunnel it is meant to emulate. But we aren’t done yet.
Burrows form part of a complex. So, to eliminate possible escape tunnels, we set about plugging the surrounding holes using a highly specialized tool: Big plastic cups, the kind that convenience store sodas come in. Finally, we mark the location by driving a few “lollipop” reflectors into the hard ground.
Landing the Squid
An hour later, we’re back, and we’ve hit pay dirt. I read off the GPS coordinates to Haycraft, who is filling out our data sheet. Coonrod calls it in. Then we transport our catch, cage and all, to the trailer that serves as the evening’s command center.
We’re giddy with victory, and more than a little punchy. As we bounce along the rutted road, Coonrod shares an insight.
”You got to think about it. To them, this is like our UFO alien abductions, because they get these lights shined in their face, then they get caged, get put under, anesthetized, get their temperature taken up their butt, get PIT tagged, and then they wake up, and they’re back at their hole. You know? So it’s got to be like an alien abduction.”
Once at the trailer, Heimann distracts our guest while Cordova injects it with penicillin and shots against plague and canine distemper. As Cordova explains, black-footed ferrets are vulnerable to both deadly diseases.
“Ferrets are susceptible to plague – they can eat an infected prairie dog, or they can get bit by a flea that has the plague, or if the prairie dogs die off, then the ferrets can lose their food source."
Cordova and Heimann then use a mix of isoflurane and oxygen to put the ferret under for the rest of the examination. They might look cute, but black-footed ferrets boast the largest canine-to-skull ratio of any North American mammal, and they know how to use them.
They tell us the good news: We have found a wild-born female, and she sports the white teeth and glossy coat of a year-old kit. Since she is new, Cordova and Heimann need to inject a passive integrated transponder, or PIT tag – a microchip similar to those used in pets – and take a tuft of fur for DNA purposes.
It’s tradition that a new find receives a name from its spotter. Haycraft already has one in mind.
“I would like to name it Giant Squid,” he says.
There’s no accounting for taste. Coonrod named his first ferret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (he says it was part of a M*A*S*H theme he was working on).
We pile in the truck and take Giant Squid back to her hole where, following a few minutes of groggy hesitation, she scrambles in.
Only one task remains before we break down the site and remove all signs of our presence: Tossing a thawed haunch of prairie dog into the hole – compensation for interrupting a night’s hunt.
After a moment’s hesitation, and a few calls for hand sanitizer, Haycraft performs his final task like a trooper. All alien abductions should be so considerate.
Back at the trailer, I prepare to grab a power nap before hitting the road at sunrise. But before I leave, I ask Cordova and Heimann why we should save the black-footed ferret.
We talk about how it’s the only ferret native to North America, about how we have a responsibility to fix what we’ve broken. But there’s something else, too, says Cordova.
“I remember something from college. They compared animals and different species to the rivets on the wing of a plane. So, if you take off one rivet, nothing’s going to happen; you take off a couple more, nothing’s going to happen. But eventually you take out one, and the wing is going to fall off and the plane is going to crash.”
Cordova says that their ferret numbers have been declining for several years. No one quite knows why. But there’s good news, too: The ferrets are still out there, and they’ve moved into other areas – both on their own and via a third introduction site. Twenty years after it started, the reintroduction program is still going strong.
And the volunteers – the citizen scientists – make it possible.