Group is first high school to join in spotlight search

By RICHARD ROBINSON

Special to The Hays Daily News

Brock Newell, Marisa Fieseler, and Hayley Normandin, three Palco High School students were accompanied by Wyatt Robinson, a University of Kansas freshman, and their science instructor, Richard Robinson, to a location south of Russell Springs, Kansas to help survey the endangered black-footed ferret.

The group gave up one night of their spring break to assist U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel in surveying the most endangered mammal in North America. The ferrets were reintroduced into Kansas in 2007 after becoming nearly extinct in the wild. Black-footed ferrets live almost exclusively on prairie dogs. They were pushed to the brink of extinction as people tried to eradicate the prairie dog.

The students left Palco at 2:30 p.m. March 15 and arrived at the survey site at 5 p.m. Upon arrival the group was given an evening meal of buffalo burgers and chips. It was at this time that our group received group assignments and onsite instructions.

The other surveyors were from colleges all across Kansas, and one group was from Smith College in Massachusetts.

Palco is the first high school group that has been allowed to help. The group divided into eight smaller groups. Hayley and Marisa were in one group, and Brock, Wyatt and I were in another group.

We began our survey at dark.

The first of seven ferrets was caught within 45 minutes. Marisa and Hayley's group caught the sixth ferret, a male, between 4 and 4:30 a.m.

Our group, led by Dan Mulhern, spent the entire night driving through 2 square miles of pasture with our windows down looking for ferrets and slowly freezing to death. The temperature dropped from 45 to 25 degrees during the time we did our survey.

We came across deer, coyotes, four skunks, five badgers, countless rabbits and one swift fox.

The swift fox really got us excited because their eyes glow the same bright emerald green as the black-footed ferret. We crossed many fences, gullies and deep cattle trails. At 5 a.m., as we were driving down a fence row, Brock spotted a ferret within 50 feet of our vehicle. We hurriedly set a trap in the burrow and plugged all the nearby tunnel entrances.

We then left the area for 30 minutes to allow the ferret to relax and, hopefully, climb into the trap. When we returned we could see the bright eyes and bobbing head of the ferret in our trap. We quickly collected the trap and transported the ferret to our base camp where a veterinarian checked out its health, sex (ours was a young female), and implanted two microchips for later identification. We then returned the ferret to the same burrow we had captured it from.

The seven ferrets (five new and two recaptures) were a record for one night of trapping. We were extremely lucky to have both of our groups involved with a capture.

These Palco students are now numbered in a group of less than 200 people who have captured and tagged a wild black-footed ferret. The Fish and Wildlife Service continued to survey these ferrets for eight days through March 25.

This outing was a wonderful educational experience and quite an adventure.

After spending an entire night in the field and seeing the sunrise without sleeping, we returned home. Needless to say, the weary students slept all the way back to Palco.

* Richard Robinson is in his first year teaching science at Palco High School but has a 33-year career teaching science, all but one of it at Hill City High School. He and his wife, Debbie, live on a farm south of Hill City. His son, Wyatt, is the youngest of six.