MEETEETSE, Wyo. — At about 3 a.m. on Sept. 26, 1981, cattle rancher John Hogg and his wife, Lucille, were awakened by furious barking by their dog just outside the bedroom window.
"I figured Shep got in a tangle with a porcupine, so I went back to sleep," Hogg recalled recently.
Later that morning, Hogg investigated. He found the carcass of a strange little animal. He had never seen one like it before, although he had lived all his life in this part of northwestern Wyoming. Resembling a mink, it had a black mask, black feet and a black-tipped tail. It also had a broken back.
Hogg thought it was a mink. He showed it to his wife, then threw it over the front-yard fence, into a field. Later that morning, Lucille Hogg asked her husband to retrieve the animal, explaining she wanted to take it to a Meeteetse taxidermist for mounting.
When the taxidermist examined the carcass, however, he looked up and said: "I can't touch this. This is an endangered species. It's a black-footed ferret."
The black-footed ferret is one of 23 mammals on the federal list of endangered species. Even though it was on the list before 1981, however, more than a few biologists had given up on the continued existence of the little animal, which is every bit as mysterious as its black mask suggests.
They believed that the ferret, once found in at least 12 plains and western states, was extinct.
Said Dave Belitsky, the biologist in charge of the black-footed ferret advisory team: "We figure it's a tossup right now as to which is the rarest North American mammal--these ferrets or the Florida panther."
Until 1981, no one had seen a black-footed ferret anywhere in North America after 1978. But since Shep encountered Ferret I that morning in 1981, biologists have counted at least 130 of them in a 53-square mile area near this ranch community 20 miles south of Cody, Wyo. About 70% of the ferrets have been found on the 120,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch, but others have been found on property owned by four other area landowners.
With the frequent comings and goings of federal and state biologists, occasional media visitors and wildlife film-makers, at least a mild dose of ferretmania has afflicted Meeteetse.
For instance, the same Lucille Hogg who once wanted a mounted ferret now jokingly lists Ferret Nuggets on the menu at her cafe. The entree really is a chicken dish. She also sponsors a women's softball team called the Ferrettes.
The gas station sells black-footed ferret T-shirts, and someone is said to be working on black-footed ferret postcards. Eventually, biologists figure, a sign will go up at the city limits proclaiming Meeteetse the black-footed ferret capital of the world.
Hogg said that his dog killed the ferret that morning because the ferret was going for scraps in Shep's dish. Misdemeanor? Absolutely not. A federal case.
Belitsky said: "The Meeteetse taxidermist called a Wyoming game warden, who verified it was indeed a black-footed ferret, and he called a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer, since it was a federally endangered species.
"A black-footed ferret advisory team was put together, comprising state and federal people, and landowners on whose property the ferrets were found.
"We had a real mystery at first. Black-footed ferrets are almost entirely dependent on prairie dogs, yet the one killed by the dog turned out to be six miles from the nearest prairie dog habitat. In 1982, one was killed by a car 10 miles from the nearest prairie dog mounds."
Later, biologists theorized that those ferrets may have been scout animals, searching for new habitat. Marine biologists have observed similar activity in California sea otters.
Black-footed ferrets are 21 to 23 inches long and weigh two to three pounds. They're short-legged but have long canine teeth and powerful jaws. It is believed that they kill prairie dogs, which often outweigh them, by biting deep into a prairie dog's throat and holding on until the prairie dog bleeds to death.
Belitsky, showing a reporter a ferret skull in his office, pointed to the half-inch canines.
"Considering this is an inch-and-a-half-long skull, these are immense canines," he said.
Ferrets are almost always found living in prairie dog burrows. Before the mid-19th Century, when cattle ranchers began trying to exterminate prairie dogs, black-footed ferret habitat extended in a band from Saskatchewan and Alberta south across 12 states, almost to Mexico.
Because cattle sometimes broke their legs in prairie dog burrows, however, ranchers began using poisoned grain to kill them, later turning to poison gas. Then, when the grasslands went under the plow, millions of acres of prairie dog habitat were eliminated.
Biologists today believe that black-footed ferrets were never common, even in areas abundant in prairie dogs. Little is said of them in western literature.