By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

RUSSELL SPRINGS -- Wildlife officials went over to the dark side once again, using bright spotlights to ferret out the most endangered mammal in the United States -- the black-footed ferret.

While the results were somewhat disappointing, biologist Dan Mulhearn said it's entirely possible that the searchers could have missed a number of ferrets.

"They have to be above ground, looking your way when you go by," Mulhearn said of the technique used to find ferrets. The animals, first reintroduced onto three Logan County ranches in December 2007, are found with the use of spotlights reflecting off emerald green eyes. Once they are spotted, searchers set traps to capture the animals, which are then examined, vaccinated and implanted with an identification chip if necessary.

Mulhearn, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist for the reintroduction project, said seven ferrets were captured.

About 20 of the animals were spotlighted during five nights of searching about 10,000 acres of land owned by Larry and Bette Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt. Part of the 17,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy also was checked.

Last spring, 19 animals were spotted, 12 of them captured.

"It wasn't quite as good as what we'd like to see," Larry Haverfield said of last week's foray into the field.

Haverfield helped a photographer, preparing to illustrate a book on animals in the High Plains, and another FWS ferret specialist successfully search for the animals after the main group left.

FWS biologist Scott Larson was able to spot a ferret and its kits -- a family, Haverfield said.

"That was good," Haverfield said. "He got a look at things here. Our prairie dogs, I think are slipping in numbers."

Haverfield was able to find four ferrets on Saturday.

"We had an idea where to go find them," he said, referring to the week's worth of surveying that as many as 35 people were undertaking. "Even with that, it took us all night to find them."

Those 35 people started out slowly finding ferrets, Mulhearn said, with only one spotted on the first night.

This week, he has been cross-checking the sightings with people who participated in the survey, in an attempt to ensure that ferrets aren't double-counted.

Ultimately, only seven were captured, one of them a female that had been wild-born and had given birth to a litter of kits.

That was perhaps the most exciting news for Mulhearn, because it means that Kansas-born ferrets -- the first in more than 50 years -- are repopulating the High Plains where the animals used to roam.

Of the seven captured, four were adults and three were "young of the year," meaning they had been born earlier this year.

The first ferret captured wasn't very healthy, and was captured when one of the surveyors tossed a coat over it.

It had several cactus spines in its muzzle, Mulhearn said, and its body condition was poor.

She was examined, rehydrated and then "turned her loose and hope for the best," he said.

It's thought that the animal was a young of the year as well, but that its mother might have died.

"If mothers die, these kits have an uphill battle," Mulhearn said. "They're not ready to be out on their own."

Kits were born in May or June, so are only a few months old. Generally, they take off on their own later in the year, perhaps in October or November.

One of the animals captured was a female.

"When they took her back, there were two kits there waiting for her," he said.

Mulhearn had hoped that sightings this fall would increase, given the sheer number of animals that would have been born this summer.

"What we're getting is minimum numbers," he said.

All told, at least 74 ferrets have been released at the three sites in Logan County. But the annual mortality can be as high as 70 percent in any given year.

One of the ferrets captured this go-round, Mulhearn said was a 2-year-old, released in December 2007.

"He looked really good," he said.