Ferret protections – FWS prepares rule for comment
Over the last several weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) have held a series of public meetings across the four corners of Wyoming to conduct outreach on the proposed Black-footed ferret 10(j) rule that is slated for publication in the Federal Register by mid-April.
“FWS and WGFD have been conducting outreach and stakeholder meetings to communicate to attendees how they can participate in the Black-footed ferret 10(j) and what it means to them,” says Clark McCreedy, FWS partnership coordinator. “Right now, the proposed 10(j) rule is being reviewed internally by FWS. Once that review is complete, the next part of the process is to issue a Notice of Availability, which triggers a 60-day comment period.”
At that point, the proposed rule will be available for review by the general public, and FWS is hoping to receive good, substantive comments on the rule.
“We are definitely interested in getting this rule through the process,” says Zack Walker, WGFD non-game bird and mammal program supervisor. “We want people to know what we are trying to do and why. We also want this process to be as transparent as possible to alleviate concerns about the 10(j) rule.”
The proposed 10(j) rule strives to set up protections for landowners regarding Black-footed ferrets.
Walker explains, “A 10(j) rule relieves the burden off landowners for incidentally taking a ferret.”
“FWS acknowledges that wild ferrets don’t exist in the state of Wyoming outside of those that have already been reintroduced,” McCreedy explains. “Those reintroduced populations are in the Shirley Basin.”
The new rule proposes to designate the entire state of Wyoming as a 10(j) area.
“This designation would provide substantial regulatory relief for not just private landowners but also people who use public lands,” he emphasizes. “We are expanding the regulatory relief that exists in the Shirley Basin across the state.”
Effectively, McCreedy explains that the rule provides protections for landowners should a ferret move outside the existing 10(j) area.
“Secondly, should we have a private landowner who wants to participate in ferret reintroductions in the future, the 10(j) rule makes certain that regulatory relief is already in place for all landowners,” he says.
McCreedy adds, “Regulatory relief is the primary goal of this proposed 10(j) rule. The regulatory relief is substantial.”
“Essentially, it takes away all the endangered and threatened status of the ferret for legal activities,” Walker says. “The impetus for the statewide 10(j) is to make sure landowners are covered for incidental take.”
Included in regulatory relief, says McCreedy, is a provision for incidental take.
“The 10(j) rule takes away the prohibition for incidental take,” he says. “What that means is, if someone is conducting an activity on their property, operation or ranch – and it is a legal and acceptable practice – if a ferret is injured or taken, they are completely covered under the 10(j) rule.”
Activities such as driving down a two-track road, moving irrigation pipe, baling hay, moving cattle and others are examples McCreedy lists where ferrets may be injured or taken, but he emphasizes that any legal activity is covered.
“The incidental take language is all-encompassing,” he says.
Walker notes, “We still can’t go out and purposely take or shoot ferrets, but the rule provides protection for legal activities.”
The provisions also include all landowners – not just those who may choose to participate in a reintroduction.
“If a ferret moves, the landowner is protected, regardless, as long as their activities are legal,” McCreedy says.
McCreedy notes that during the course of the meetings several consistent concerns have been heard, including concerns about the extent of the relief and the potential for ferret reintroductions.
“One concern has been about the regulatory relief provided and the reliability of that relief,” McCreedy says. “We want folks to know the regulatory relief is substantial.”
He also mentions that FWS has a track record of vigorously defending the use of 10(j) rules, and McCreedy says, “The use of 10(j) rules is one tool that we think is really key in actually realizing the goals of recovery.”
“We want folks to know that we will defend the use of the 10(j) rule,” he emphasizes.
To date, Black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced in the Shirley Basin and along the Colorado border south of a small portion of Sweetwater County. However, McCreedy notes that there is potential for additional reintroductions.
“Colorado was able to implement an incentive program, and there was substantial interest among landowners in terms of participating in ferret reintroduction in Colorado,” he explains. “There could be, foreseeably, an interest in reintroductions if we were able to implement an incentive program in Wyoming.”
He also emphasizes, however, that reintroductions would be driven entirely by the WGFD and state of Wyoming, in cooperation with private landowners.
“We want to proceed toward any future reintroductions from the ground up – with landowners working with an agency that they have trust in,” he says.
“The 10(j) rule is entirely compatible with ranching operations, so the anticipation is that landowners won’t have to make any changes in their operation,” McCreedy says.
“If we get a 10(j) in place, we hope that we will relieve concerns from people,” Walker says. “We think this rule will help with recovery.”
“The ferret is one of the unique situations where recovery is entirely feasible, and that is the ultimate regulatory relief – to get the critter completely off the Endangered Species List,” McCreedy comments.
Safe harbor agreement
In addition to the proposed 10(j) rule, a safe harbor agreement is in place regarding Black-footed ferrets.
“The range-wide safe harbor agreement does much the same as the 10(j) rule in terms of providing regulatory relief, but it is specific for private lands,” Clark McCreedy, FWS partnership coordinator, explains. “Landowners or groups of landowners can obtain a separate Section 10 permit under the safe harbor agreement.”
In addition to the protections against incidental take, the safe harbor establishes that, prior to reintroduction, the baseline population of ferrets is zero.
“The safe harbor allows landowners, at their discretion, to say they want to return to the baseline population – zero ferrets,” McCreedy says.
“If for any reason all the ferrets die, landowners are completely covered,” Zack Walker, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game bird and mammal program supervisor, says. “On the other side, if someone buys a property and says they don’t want ferrets anymore, we can go back to the baseline population of zero.”
“We want to work with landowners as much as we possibly can,” he adds.
The only change for landowners is that, under the safe harbor, a conservation zone is agreed on where ferrets could be reintroduced, and a management zone would be established where prairie dogs would continue to be managed – the only stipulation being no use of the anti-coagulant rodenticides,” McCreedy adds.
“The recognition is that landowners need to manage encroachment of prairie dogs. Our goal is to achieve recovery of the ferret while taking into consideration the needs of private landowners,” McCreedy says.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.