By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

After crossing out all the duplicate sightings, the count for black-footed ferrets in Logan County was down this fall.

Searchers spent eight nights in the field recently at the Haverfield-Barnhardt complex south of Russell Springs and at the Nature Conservancy's Smoky Valley Ranch, only to find a total of 38 animals, according to Dan Mulhern, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the reintroduction program.

"That's down," Mulhern said, "not just from last fall but from this spring."

This spring, searchers -- using high-intensity spotlights under cover of darkness -- located 43 animals.

Forty-five ferrets were captured last fall, at which time they were examined and vaccinated against canine distemper.

The drop in numbers isn't much of a surprise, primarily because prairie dog numbers have been down dramatically this year.

Dry weather in the Logan County area was so severe that it forced prairie dogs to go into hibernation, an almost unheard of event for black-tailed prairie dogs.

Typically, they will go underground during cold or snowy weather in the winter, but will re-emerge when the sun comes out and temperatures warm.

The forced hibernation also is thought to be responsible for a sharply lower reproduction rate, something ferret specialists worried might adversely affect ferret reproduction as well.

Ferrets, themselves relatively small, give birth almost in tandem with prairie dogs. Female ferrets are known to dine on young prairie dogs because of their size.

Mulhern said the prairie dog population decline was probably anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent across different pastures in both reintroduction sites.

"So it's fairly significant," he said.

Mulhern said he's laying the reduction in ferret numbers squarely at the feet of the reduced prairie dog population, as well as what appears to be a sharp increase in the coyote population.

Coyotes haven't been much of a problem in the Logan County area in recent years because of an outbreak of sarcoptic mange, which can result in the loss of hair. Mites cause the mange.

It was responsible for a sharp dip in coyote populations.

"In eight days of surveying, I saw more coyotes than in three years combined," he said. "Everybody reported seeing or hearing lots of coyotes."

Coyotes are one of the top predators for ferrets.

"They're probably the No. 1 or No. 2, along with the great horned owl," Mulhern said. "And barn owl out there."

Despite the dip in sightings, Mulhern isn't panicking.

"After 31βΡ2 years of sharp increases, we're due to have a decline," he said. "I don't think it's worthy of panic."