‘Someone has to do it’: Inside a volunteer hunt for the elusive, nocturnal and increasingly endangered creatures

SELIGMAN — It’s 1 a.m. on a cold and quiet Saturday, but Joe Ortega is wide awake, slamming his steering wheel and jamming to classic rock. The whining guitar riffs and commanding drums that blare out of Ortega’s truck set the tempo for the night and echo into the fields of Aubrey Valley near Route 66, west of this small tourist town 170 miles northwest of Phoenix.

This ritual is part of his typical routine on nights like these, and while he’s having fun, he’s focused.

Gripping the steering wheel with his right hand, he wields a spotlight in his left, shining it out his window and panning across a barren field littered with prairie dog holes. This old Metallica roadie isn’t searching for a rock star on stage.

He’s hunting for the elusive, nocturnal and increasingly endangered black-footed ferret.

“It’s all part of my strategy, man, but it’s a little unconventional,” Ortega said of the music. Sometimes, it helps pique the interest of the animals, hopefully enough that they pop their heads out of the ground.

He’s done this since he caught his first ferret several years ago and has since caught dozens of them. Lately though, the music hasn’t clicked. Nothing really has.

Ortega has no obligation to keep jamming along at these unpaid gigs; he’s in it for something else. He’s had a few good shows with this crew and willingly rolls with the slow nights, chasing the feeling of his first catch.

“The first time I caught one I was so excited,” Ortega said, driving down the same road where it happened.

“He was squirming around in the cage and I was like, ‘I finally got you… Now I just chase that feeling, that rush.”

Ortega is one of a handful of volunteers helping the Arizona Game and Fish Department search for the increasingly rare predators. Every spring and fall, the department seeks out people to help catch, count, tag and vaccinate the animals.

The ferrets nearly went extinct, twice, and survive in the wild mostly through human intervention, programs that breed animals in captivity, release them into the wild and keep track of their numbers.

Since 2000, volunteers and staff have spent more than 32,000 hours spotlighting. But since 2013, the group has trapped fewer ferrets each year. Although it’s difficult to get an exact count with such a sprawling habitat, officials fear the number of ferrets in this area may have dropped from over 120 seven years ago to fewer than a dozen.

The state wildlife agency relies on volunteers to help monitor the ferrets and, twice a year, sends out whoever shows up with vehicles, spotlights and cages. It’s a tough sell. Volunteers work long, late and odd hours for no pay and little recognition.

When Ortega searches with his spotlight, he’s looking for a pair of bright and beady green eyes poking out of any one of hundreds of prairie dog holes. Once he spots the eyes and the slim shadow, he halts the truck, hops out and gets to work.

Immediately, he grabs a long rectangular wire-cage trap fixed with a spring door from his truck bed, races over, places it in the hole and wraps it in a burlap sack to keep it dark and make it appear part of the tunnel. He plugs nearby tunnels with Big Gulp cups to lure the animal out and keep it from sneaking through an escape hatch.

He’ll mark the spot, continue the hunt and circle back in an hour. If Ortega catches one, he’ll call the state Game and Fish crew to scoop it up and take it back to their mobile lab.

If it’s a new ferret, they’ll knock it out, give it vaccines and embed an electronic tag before letting it go. If it already has a tag, they’ll give it a checkup and release it. The group has had success spotting them in the past and has consistently set records.

Jennifer Cordova, a wildlife specialist with the department, and her team are trying to figure out where the animals are going or why they’re dying. Cordova’s crew monitors a few of the 30 sites scattered throughout the southwestern U.S., Mexico and in Canada.

Here’s what a black-footed ferret night hunt is like

Volunteers with the Arizona Game and Fish Department spotlight for black-footed ferrets twice a year in Seligman to help repopulate the endangered species.

Sean Logan, The Republic | azcentral.com

One of their sites, Aubrey Valley, was established in 1996 as part of a captive breeding program for the animal. The ferret nearly went extinct twice and its population fell to dozens at one point. Ranchers had used pesticides to kill almost all of the prairie dogs in the region, which are a staple of the black-footed ferret’s diet.

That diminished prey population caused ferrets to look harder for food, leaving them more likely to be killed by their predators. And that risk, combined with a ferret’s susceptibility to plague, canine distemper and other diseases, make survival tenuous, even in the most ideal wild conditions.

Cordova acknowledged the reintroduction is a work in progress. A robust and stable number of ferrets is crucial to keeping the ecosystem running smoothly, which was already disrupted by the near-eradication of the prairie dogs. It’s a human-caused problem, Cordova said, and it will be up to humans to find a solution.

“We owe it to them to try to bring them back,” Cordova said.

Jennifer Cordova, wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department on the endangered black-footed ferret
We owe it to them to try to bring them back.

“We have other people who say, ‘Who cares? What would happen if there are no ferrets out there?’ Maybe nothing. But everything has its place. If they’re gone, we should help bring them back.”

Cordova’s trio, while she doesn’t put it so bluntly, is clearly overbooked. They’re responsible for combing 50,000 acres of habitat and keeping afloat part of this fragile species, whose numbers ebb and flow between 300 and 500 nationwide, including dozens in Aubrey Valley.

On spotlighting night, Cordova welcomes the volunteers to a modest house in a neighborhood off the main — and only — street cutting through the small town. It doubles as a dormitory and an office for her team, who work back to back on computers in what would be the living room, surrounded by ferret-themed paraphernalia.

The group huddles in a small room on a few couches and watches videos about the spotlighting program and how the ferrets are caught before meeting at a trailer parked off old Route 66. While wide-eyed volunteers fan out, Cordova and her crew sit in the trailer, reminisce, drink coffee like it’s water and compile logs of previous sightings.

Their trailer is flanked by a few pickup trucks and a lifted Jeep that belongs to one of the volunteers, Garrit Ringendolus. He came prepared, armed with a few spotlights of his own, clad in aged blue jeans, hiking boots and, most importantly, a plush penguin hat to weather the cold.

It’s a good-luck charm from one of Ringendolus’ grandchildren, Liam, whose name he gave the ferret he caught yesterday. Tonight is quieter than usual, with only cows, a few foxes and porcupine for company. He doesn’t mind the silence and solitude; that’s mostly why he comes.

Ringendolus never thought he would spend some of his nights like this, but retirement is an odd thing, he said. After reading about the program six years ago, he said it looked fun, something to do.

In his 20s, after “gloriously flunking out” of college following a stint in the Marine Corps, he joined the Army and spent a few decades in service, sometimes working night patrol, driving a car without the lights on, listening and looking for the enemy. He’s returned to that in a way, seeking out part-time, pro-bono gigs like these that bring back memories and offer him the structure that gave his young life direction and purpose.

The Flagstaff retiree doesn’t want beaches or gaudy getaways from the family. He’ll gladly settle for this, spending a few nights alone underneath a star-studded sky, driving up and down dirt roads in a jeep his grandchildren are too embarrassed to ride in.

It has a ham radio, mounts for his phone, gadgets and a clipboard for taking notes. Ringendolus doesn’t care if it’s a little odd, because it can’t get odder than this newfound hobby.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t tell anyone anymore because they think I’m crazy,” Ringendolus said.

“But then again, I don’t give a damn. Everyone is crazy in some way. My children don’t understand at all, but they tolerate it.”

Ringendolus said he wishes more people took the time to do things because “there are never enough who do.” Even on unusually quiet nights like these, Ringendolus said, it provides a form of solace and “puts your brain into neutral.”

While he spends a lot of his time volunteering with other state environmental programs, what brings him out to these fields year after year is not necessarily a selfless, altruistic motivation.

“It keeps me occupied, busy — otherwise my wife would kick my ass,” Ringendolus said. It’s nice, and imperative, to catch a ferret, but in the end, being there is what counts.

“Sometimes, just like in life, you come up empty, and that’s OK.”

Hours to the south, dozens of the endangered ferrets rest safely, without the worry of where their next meal will come from. They’re in an air-conditioned room tucked away in a quiet corner in the Phoenix Zoo, hidden from public view.

Thirty of them live in manufactured burrows, small black boxes connected by a tube resembling a tunnel that sits below a small cage with a piece of dangling black drain pipe for play. The animals sit in a sterile room, listening to the soft lullaby of a humming air-conditioning unit, waking up for meals or to romp about the cage.

Bradley Poynter, who oversees the zoo’s conservation team and the work done by the ferret center, gently taps one of the cages and tosses some kibble into it, hoping to coax one of the ferrets out of its slumber. Hani pokes its head out to inspect the intruder before shuffling up to grab the pellets and return to safety.

The animals aren’t social, Poynter said, and they are only paired with potential mates for a few days when the timing is right. This group has been consistently producing offspring, which makes the job much easier.

Bradley Poynter, oversees the zoo’s conservation team and work done by the ferret center
The overall goal for any conservation effort is to not have to do it anymore.

“The overall goal for any conservation effort is to not have to do it anymore,” Poynter said, adding that the ultimate goal is to have the species sustain itself and only loosely monitored so that the zoo can use facilities like this for other programs.

But the biggest challenge the program is having is combating sylvatic plague in the wild, which is transferred from prairie dogs to ferrets. Every ferret released from facilities like this one is vaccinated for the plague.

“So, they’re OK, but the vaccinations don’t carry on through generations,” Poynter said.

“The process of eliminating plague is the big challenge,” he said. “How do you do it? How do you best maintain it? How do you best control it? There’s a lot of work being done on that end.”

The zoo joined a coalition of other zoos and facilities in Louisville, Kentucky; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Together, the programs work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain and grow a captive-bred population and, ideally, to release as many as are ready.

There are hundreds in the wild and around 1,000 in facilities like this. The program and others like it have been going on for so long that it’s a science.

Workers check animals for their development, monitor mating with cameras and inspect the female ferrets to see if they’re fertilized. When the ferrets are ready to mate, they’re put together for a few days; after, a worker swabs the females to see if they were inseminated.

Ferrets can give birth to anywhere from two to eight offspring, Poynter said, which are either chosen for the breeding program because of their genetics or slated for release. Those selected to breed will either stay in Phoenix or be shipped to another site to keep the genetics as diverse as possible, while the others are shipped to a soft release enclosure at a federal facility in Colorado, a kind of ferret boot camp.

“There, they’ll survive on wild prairie dogs,” Poynter said.

“Once they prove their fitness by surviving on prairie dogs, then they go to the release sites.”

That’s where Cordova and her crew come in. When they get a group of ferrets, referred to as a “business,” it’s then the team’s business to release and monitor the animals the best they can.

A pair of black-footed ferrets at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado.

A pair of black-footed ferrets at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado.

Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Cordova and the volunteers are nearing the end of their hunt and they’ve seen nothing. Rubbing her eyes and sipping coffee to stay awake, she sits in the crowded trailer with her crew, gossiping about the week while a pile of ferret traps sit empty beside them.

Their conversations are becoming less lucid and goofier as the night rolls on. Back in the field, Ortega is scanning through his radio channels, hoping to find something more exciting than jazz or tame acoustic guitar music.

The music not only serves to draw a crowd of curious ferrets, it keeps him awake. No coffee, no tea, just metal and rock and roll.

Ortega doesn’t reveal much about his past life as a roadie but said it was some of the most rewarding years of his life. He lived on the road, with his schedule centered on Metallica shows across the country.

He likes not having his life bound by needless restrictions. And now that he’s crossing over middle age and getting older, he’s looking for more ways to give back.

Several years ago, he said he read of the program in The Arizona Republic and thought it looked like a fun way to kill the time. He appreciates the company with the crew. Like the ferrets, Ortega said he doesn’t mind the lonely silent nights; it gives him time to think and it’s a job that’s more important than ever.

“That’s the point of it all,” Ortega said.

“We’ve gotta help these little guys out,” Ortega said. “Someone has to do it. Even if you don’t see anything, it’s a good time.”

While Ortega sees it as a hobby, others, like Karina Hilliard, say it’s a calling to conserve and preserve the fragile ecosystems wrecked by careless people.

Hilliard has been helping with the program for three years and drives seven to eight hours from Patagonia in southern Arizona. She’s studying conservation biology and works to educate people in Patagonia and around the state about its importance.

The task can get dull at times, Hilliard admits, and a lot of the fun comes from getting to know the people in her spotlighting group. But everything changes when she sees that “Mountain Dew green eye shine.”

Karina Hilliard, a volunteer with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, spotlights for black-footed ferrets on April 19, 2019, in Aubrey Valley near Seligman.

Karina Hilliard, a volunteer with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, spotlights for black-footed ferrets on April 19, 2019, in Aubrey Valley near Seligman.

Sean Logan/The Republic

“When you see that eye shine, your adrenaline just — no matter how tired you are or what time of the night it is — spikes up and you’re ready to go,” Hilliard said.

Most of the time though, that doesn’t happen, and it still hasn’t happened yet tonight.  As the night goes on and the caffeine wears off, people get loopy and start to see things.

On one cold and clear night, she and another volunteer were sitting in a truck, halted in the middle of a dirt road off the highway, staring at something they caught in their spotlight. They sat there for five minutes as still and as quiet as they could as not to scare it. It was all for nothing.

“We got the binoculars on it and realized it was a rabbit that was sitting just perfectly that he looked like an owl,” Hilliard said.

“We got very embarrassed and left and kept driving.”

The careful attention they gave to the rabbit and their sudden dismissal of it isn’t too different from how most people react to the group’s message of protecting the endangered species.

Hilliard and the crew can share pictures and videos to make the creatures more personable and stress the importance of keeping them a part of the ecosystem, but people tend to have a short attention span and be dismissive.

Even more difficult is preaching the importance of conservation and the connectedness of people and everything in nature, Hilliard said. She refers to this idea as a large web.

Karina Hilliard, Arizona Game and Fish Department volunteer
I feel amazing being able to be a part of this.

Whether or not people realize it, Hilliard said, everything is tied together; when one bond breaks, others weaken. The struggle to keep the attention and empathy of people is a personal struggle for Hilliard and she hopes she can play a small part in helping people learn about simple things, to reintroduce the ferrets onto more ranches and get more help for the Game and Fish Department and their loyal army of volunteers.

“I feel amazing being able to be a part of this,” Hilliard said.

“Growing up, I’ve always loved animals,” she said. “I never thought I’d actually get to a point where not only would I be working with animals, that I’d be helping bring animals back that we thought were extinct and that are on the endangered species list and should theoretically be gone because of all the damage that was done.”

Hilliard drives back to the trailer from her scheduled route to meet with the crew. She and everyone else arrive empty handed.

A few say they thought they saw a ferret, some surer than others. Many set up traps where they thought they spotted one, but never caught one.

Cordova and the crew sigh, start cleaning up the trailer and sending everyone home, ready to start the next day of spotlighting. She steps out of the trailer to get some air and watches the sunrise; she’ll soon go to bed and so will the crafty ferrets who outlasted her crew.

Jennifer Cordova, a wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, poses for a portrait after a night of spotlighting for black-footed ferrets on April 20, 2019, near Seligman.

Jennifer Cordova, a wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, poses for a portrait after a night of spotlighting for black-footed ferrets on April 20, 2019, near Seligman.

Sean Logan/The Republic

“(Nights like these) are why we usually do five nights because they figure you can see up to 80 percent of the ferrets you have out there in the five nights,” Cordova said.

“We caught about six last spring and so far we’ve only captured one,” she said. “It’s just unusually slow. We really need to figure out what’s going on and then hopefully in the fall we can release the other ferrets with radio collars on and see what’s really happening with them.”

There are a few theories about why there are fewer ferrets. It’s possible the plague may be back and more prevalent than anyone thought. The ferrets may also just be good at hiding.

After all, the crews have a lot of land to cover and they can’t access all of it because of the lack of roads and lack of time to dedicate to the project. Whatever the reason is, the estimated population has dropped from over 120 in 2012, to just under 10.

Garrit Ringendolus, Arizona Game and Fish volunteer
They’re an endangered species and they’ve got a shot at staying around and if we can assist them in improving their odds, that’s always a good thing to do for critters that live on the planet with us.

Cordova said the group is “a ways from achieving our goal,” but said they plan on setting up new sites, conducting more studies for disease management. They will be spotlighting again in July, September and October and will release more ferrets this fall.

When they do that, Ringendolus said, as long as he’s able to make it, he will be there.

“They’re an endangered species and they’ve got a shot at staying around and if we can assist them in improving their odds, that’s always a good thing to do for critters that live on the planet with us,” Ringendolus said.

“It’s not hard work, you just have to be out there,” he said. “It also helps if you’re slightly crazy.”

A black-footed ferret peeks out from his burrow.

A black-footed ferret peeks out from his burrow.

George Andrejko/Arizona Game and Fish

Reach out to the reporter at [email protected] or at (602) 444-3821. Follow him on Twitter@AndrewNicla.

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Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. For more stories visit environment.azcentral.com or follow OurGrandAZ on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.



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