CHEYENNE — Two species listed as endangered in Wyoming — the Wyoming toad and the black-footed ferret — are getting a boost in recovery efforts from zoos.
Jeff Baughman, field conservation coordinator at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said both species are being raised at the zoo for release into the wild to bolster existing populations.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, zoos have taken a turn, and now many are involved in conservation efforts,” Baughman said.
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, Wyoming.
Subsequent surveys counted 127 ferrets by 1986, but just a year later, the population experienced a rapid decline. Canine distemper was diagnosed as the culprit.
In a controversial move, the 18 remaining wild ferrets were captured and moved to a new captive-breeding facility at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Sybille Research Facility.
Endangered black-footed ferrets are now being raised at five zoos and at the federally owned Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, 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 and half remaining in the breeding program.
Although the species is still far from being recovered, there are an estimated 300 black-footed ferrets living in the wild. Currently, there are 29 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites in eight states, including two in Wyoming.
As for the Wyoming toad, the species was once plentiful, although it always only inhabited the Laramie Basin. It was first reported in 1946 by Dr. George Baxter.
Rapid toad declines occurred in the 1970s, likely due to a number of factors including water diversion, weather events and the use of pesticides for mosquito control. The primary factor that limits the recovery of the toad now is the chytrid fungus, which has been implicated in declines and extinctions of amphibian species worldwide.
Doug Keinath, a recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been encouraged as toad numbers inch upward.
“We are making progress, but it is a slow increase,” Keinath said.
Currently, Wyoming toads are being raised at seven zoos, including the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and three federal facilities.
“The toads are just really cool,” Keinath said “It’s exciting to see them return to the basin where they were once very plentiful.”