By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

RUSSELL SPRINGS -- A two-week foray into the realm of black-footed ferrets -- even in less than ideal weather conditions -- has brought with it high hopes for the upcoming breeding season.

"The boys were up frantically looking for women," said Dan Mulhern, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the Logan County ferret reintroduction program.

It is almost peak breeding season for the ferrets, with the males out actively searching for females. The females, meanwhile, are just now becoming receptive to a male's advances.

This time around, the searchers going out under cover of darkness -- essentially the only time ferrets come above-ground in search of food -- didn't catch any of the animals, but instead merely used chip readers to see how animals were doing. Through chips implanted under a ferret's skin, researchers are able to determine the sex and release date of animals; unchipped animals, however, were still spotted, but little additional information about them could be gathered.

"The numbers weren't what I expected, but we had some fairly inclement weather to contend with," he said.

Mulhern said about 16 ferrets were spotted during the first week of surveys, while only about twice that many were spotted the following week at the Haverfield-Barnhardt complex that holds a significantly larger number of prairie dogs and, as a result, ferrets.

The weather was good for the four days of searching at the Nature Conservancy's Smoky Valley Ranch on the east side of Logan County, but turned sour the following week when 26 people -- many of them students on spring break -- turned out for the search on the Haverfield complex.

Because there were so many people, one vehicle was sent to a nearby prairie dog town to make a preliminary survey to see if any ferrets had migrated off the Haverfield complex.

To the surprise of people conducting the survey, a lone animal was found.

That was after the weather turned favorable.

Winds early in the week were blowing at about 50 mph, continuing on into the night.

Mulhern said the winds hampered predators sense of smell and sound, likely keeping them below ground.

As a result, he said, the main above-ground activity was reduced to two of the four days spent on the Haverfield complex.

"We found ferrets," Mulhern said. "I don't think we went to a single pasture and got skunked."

What he's unsure of is what the prairie dog population is doing.

"Larry thinks they're down a bit," Mulhern said. "I would agree with that."

Haverfield does think prairie dog numbers are declining, perhaps part of a natural ebb-and-flow cycle.

"Maybe all it is is we've got big numbers of predators," he said.

There's a host of animals that prey on prairie dogs, including hawks, swift fox, coyotes and badgers, as well as the ferrets that have been reintroduced.

Haverfield said the prairie dogs aren't being seen now, most likely because it's that time of year when they give birth to young.

Earlier this year, there had been concern about the health of prairie dogs, but researchers are convinced their disappearance was to a forced hibernation brought on by unusually dry conditions.

"We're positive it's not plague," Mulhern said.