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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Endangered Black Footed Ferrets Released Near Flagstaff

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Bonnie Stevens/KNAU
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If you've clicked on the audio link for this story, then the sound you're hearing is the chatter of one of the most endangered mammals in North American, the black footed ferret. It's a sound that hasn't been heard much in Arizona's grasslands since 1931. That's when the animals were thought to have gone extinct after a strain of plague nearly wiped out their main food source, prairie dogs.

But last week, 26 black footed ferrets - raised in captivity - were released north of Flagstaff on the Babbitt Espee Ranch. Bill Van Pelt is a wildlife biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "The Black footed ferret is the only native ferret to North America and it thrived within the prairie dog colonies for centuries," he says. "So, when the prairie dog population went down, so did the ferret population, and it's been a challenge for us in recovery of the species because you have an exotic disease that goes across the landscape and takes away the necessary food and shelter that the prairie dogs provide for the ferret."

But, Van Pelt and other researchers are hoping to boost the local ferret population by using an experimental peanut butter flavored vaccine cracker on prairie dogs...sort of an anti-plague hors d'oeuvres. Van Pelt says, "it vaccinates the prairie dogs from plague so where it can survive and outbreak, and then the ferrets have food to eat. So, this is a tremendous tool for us to be able to manage populations. We're trying to smooth that wave out a little bit by being able to vaccinate these animals from an exotic disease like the plague."

Next month, biologists will return to the release site on a moonlit night, hoping to spot the nocturnal ferrets thriving in their new home.