If the Ferret Crosses the Road

Reintroducing North America's most endangered mammal to the wild

The line for the free lunch is dozens of uniformed employees from state and federal agencies, who are apparently starving. They shuffle through in their straw hats, broad vests, faded jeans, and cruddy boots, and fling gobs of various casseroles onto their Styrofoam plates. One woman, either a member of the media or an invited volunteer like me, asks no one in particular, “Isn’t there any elk?”

As a vegetarian, I’m accustomed to picnic disappointments, to peeking over rims of bowls only to find meat and more meat, ham in the potatoes, bacon crumbled on the salad. By the time I’ve reached the end of the buffet, I realize the only things I can eat are the sugar cookies. I set my naked plate down, a little self-conscious, and take a cookie for each palm.

There are two types of cookies, actually. In my left palm, I am holding a black-footed ferret (BFF). Black icing accentuates its bandit mask. I nibble its paws. The other cookie is meant to look like the ferret’s prairie dog prey. These two species are, after all, the occasion for this afternoon gathering on Double O Ranch in Seligman, Arizona, just northwest of Prescott, the capital of the former Arizona Territory. Almost two-thirds of Double O’s high desert landholdings are leased to the Arizona State Trust, and in a matter of minutes, through the auspices of a Safe Harbor Agreement, it will become the twenty-sixth, and newest, BFF reintroduction site in the country.

I gnaw the limbs of one cookie or another while ogling a makeshift wall of memorabilia leaning against the outside of a trailer. These poster-board collages depicting twenty years of BFF conservation here in the Aubrey Valley will likely be forgotten until needed for subsequent anniversaries. Everybody’s favorite part of the exhibit is the taxidermy duo—a ferret’s limber body mid-ambush, arched over a prairie dog nearly its own size. Transferring the cookies to my left hand, I step toward the taxidermy and pet the pelage of each with my right. The fur is coarse. The static enactment of the food chain before me, just a gasp before the ferret’s fossorial teeth puncture the prairie dog’s neckline, feels ironic considering I’m the one doing all the chewing. By now, I’ve eaten all but the heads of the cookies, not sure whose dignity I’m trying to preserve—mine as a vegetarian, or theirs. It’s yet another reminder that even if animals don’t make their way onto my dinner plate, I’m still the apex predator in this triad. The mashed cookie on my tongue suddenly tastes gamey.


I always drive to Seligman with a full tank and an empty stomach. It’s a little more than an hour from my home in Flagstaff, and I make the trip every three months or so—when I need an altitude adjustment. At almost exactly one mile above sea level, it’s still 1,700 feet beneath our perch in the pines. If it’s evening, the sun pinkening the asphalt horizon, I dine at the Roadkill Café. Years ago, Roadkill promised to griddle any creature that had succumbed to the Mother Road. I was skeptical when I first learned about the café. I figured hunters were encouraged to bring in deer or elk steaks, pre-sliced and wrapped in newspaper, something simple like that. But when I asked the waitresses, they doubled down on the mythos: “Anything they wanted.” The wood-paneled restaurant crowded with taxidermies might as well be the Colorado Plateau museum of natural history, give or take a few jackalopes. There are coyote, wolves, quail, antelope, deer, elk, buffalo, rabbits, snakes, prairie dogs, javelinas, and others. The taxidermies are elaborately collaged into a diorama that could double as a menu. I always order a double house salad.

I once met a woman named Chris, who told me her daddy would take the family to Roadkill for special dinners. To get there, he’d gas up the car and drive a section of Williamson Valley Road that he knew from hunting with his spaniels—dirt-packed with divots, a wave of rabbits hopping across. In Aurelie Sheehan’s story, “Rabbits,” a woman drives her station wagon on a dirt road where, on either side, there are fields with warrens and streams, “all kinds of rabbit habitat.” She drives slow as her headlights illuminate “little gray streaks,” the bunnies “zigzagging, frantic, stupid,” and inevitably “there would be bumps.” I imagine Chris’s daddy a little more reckless, a little more starving. I imagine his wagon hatchback or truck bed stacked with limp cottontails. I see him presenting them proudly to the waitress at the café.


While people linger at the picnic benches—eating seconds, swapping jokes—an Arizona Game and Fish intern drags a podium onto the prairie, shimmying it strategically behind an intact cholla cactus. She tries several angles, trying to stage the podium optimally, to frame nature as spectacle. Finally, the sixty-two-degree angle (the field of view of a normal camera lens) surrounding the podium is void of the ranch’s water tanks. The few houses perched on the southern canyon are out of sight as well. It’s just cholla, podium, and an orange butte at the would-be speaker’s back. It’s ready-made for all the illustrators, photographers, videographers, and journalists in attendance. It’s ready-made for me, too. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but this angled illusion that we’re standing on virginal wilderness is too far from the truth for my pen.

The December 2016 issue of Sierra features a manifesto by socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson. Calling for the commitment of half of the planet’s surface to nature, he writes, “The surviving wildlands of the world are not art museums. They are not gardens to be arranged and tended for our delectation. . . . The wildlands and the bulk of Earth’s biodiversity protected within them are another world from the one humanity is throwing together pell-mell.” I’ve been trying for years to give up my selective vision of wildness. Rather than sneak my lens through the chain-link, photographing the bison at Mormon Lake Lodge as if they’re on an actual roam, I capture their captivity, their jumbo fenced-in faces. I snapshot the sign: NAME OUR NEWEST BUFFALO. BEST BABY NAME GETS FREE STEAK DINNER AT MORMON LAKE LODGE & STEAK HOUSE.

Even the ferrets that will be released in a few moments are only wild-ish. Bred in captivity in Colorado and flown in by a pilot (who won’t be in attendance; he’s fixing the plane), the ferrets are now resting in a private trailer, like actors between takes. Their paws have not yet even touched the dust that will become their habitat. Just a few acres away, prairie dogs are scooping away the earth, forming occasional mounds that look like oversized anthills. Seldom breaking for hind-legged peeks, they toil in suicidal preparation, building entrance chutes for their starving guests.


Earlier today, just after taking Exit 123 to Seligman, passing the population sign (456 as of the 2000 census), I saw a glossy speed bump extending across the center of both lanes. In six years in Arizona, I have never seen a snake of substance (just a few checkered garter snakes in juniper brush), so I braked for the bend and approached the bump as if it were a gas station bell hose—as if the snake would ding when I rolled over it. Parked on the roadside, I could tell it was the constrictor Arizona elegans, also known as the glossy snake. The corpse was over three feet in length. I stood over it, studying the middle third where a tire had flattened it. Its pink intestines popped out of the olive casing. The jaw was unhinged, the teeth sharpening the air around it. Looking into the wide-open black beads, I wondered if this would be a fit feast for the café down the road. If I had a shovel, I would have scraped, hoisted, and dumped the snake into the brush, let it blend again with the hundreds of square acres of semiarid grassland around it.

In a chapter in Roads and Ecological Infrastructure, David M. Marsh and Jochen A. G. Jaeger claim that because exploratory and migratory behaviors are heritable, animal “populations could, over time, adapt in ways that reduce their risk of road mortality.” That is, through successive generations’ mistakes, a species can learn efficient road-crossing and road avoidance via culverts. But it’s hard to imagine how a snake, whose slow, rectilinear motion—which requires the coordination of dozens of muscles connecting rib and skin, lifting the belly, scale by scale, from the ground, replacing itself a titch farther each time—could ever move “efficiently” across a road.

It may be that these thirty deadly feet of Arizona highway will, over time, signify a barrier, and snakes will refuse to cross. For example, Swiss conservation biologists Anette and Bruno Baur determined that an eight-meter road acted as a complete barrier for 168 of 169 snails. While snails, which move via wavelike pedal locomotion similar to a snake’s rectilinear motion, are rarely the subject of road-planning conversations, there is something ecologically reassuring that studies like this exist, that researchers would mark and manage a mollusk’s perpendicular (or not) path across a road. As I stand over the snake on my way to Double O, I can’t help but imagine a ferret caroming to the other side of the road, clucking through the imprecise choreography of its “weasel-war dance,” all in pursuit of new habitat, only to be whomped by a semi.


Soon, the seven ferrets will come out of their trailers, emerging to fanfare and flashbulb. As one of the most endangered mammal species in North America, they deserve it. Their celebrity is due to their collective endurance. Even after decades of conservation technique and gadgetry, thousands of acres of habitat on loan from ranches and indigenous tribes, and tens of thousands of hours of labor by zoologists and volunteers, their wild population is a meager 1,000 globally—less than half that of the Bengal tiger. Theirs is still just survival by proxy; once considered extinct, the black-footed ferret may never be down-listed from “endangered.”

“How fast are we driving species to extinction?” Wilson asks in his manifesto. “As a consequence of human activity, it is believed that the current rate of extinction overall is between 100 and 1,000 times higher than it was” 200,000 years ago. Which raises the question: “How well is conservation working?”


People are milling about the staging area now, tossing away plates, sipping Gatorade, occasionally peeking into the windows of the trailer to see if they can glimpse a ferret. I overhear that it’s Jennifer Cordova’s mother who baked the cookies. “Not just a pretty face, but she can cook, too,” a man says. As supervisor of Arizona Game and Fish Department’s black-footed ferret program, Jennifer is the quiet hero of the reintroduction. Despite her daughter’s dogged work to reintroduce the ferret to the Colorado Plateau (to Diamond A Ranch, to Espee Ranch, now to Double O), Jennifer’s mother has never laid eyes on the weasel herself.

As I watch Jennifer’s small actions—consolidating casseroles, leafing through sign-in sheets, laughing at a man’s streak of unfunny jokes—I realize I’ve never seen her so gregarious. I squint and think I detect trace levels of pride—what with federal agencies, the media, and even her mother all there to see her show, her ferrets. But then I remember that this is the first time I’ve ever seen Jennifer in daylight. Usually, our interactions are during the punch-drunk hours of middle-night. Since 2012, I’ve been an occasional volunteer in the Aubrey Valley, nocturnally spotlighting for ferrets—idling over ranch transects, aiming the million-candle-power spotlight at the field, hoping for the reflection of non-badger green eye shine. Jennifer waits for our call from a roadside inoculation trailer. “We got one,” I say between swigs of thermos coffee. The ferret chitters in my hatchback as the cage rattles. “Awesome,” she says, a bit drowsy. “Bring it in then.”

In 2008, Wisely et al. published an article in Conservation Genetics that recommended the “translocation of 30-40 captive [BFFs] per annum” to certain reintroduction sites. This form of population augmentation has been shown to “alleviate the effects of bottlenecks and drifts.” In populations as small as these—there are just a dozen or so ferrets capable of breeding on any transect of ranch—genetic diversity is hard to come by. For the black-footed ferret, the severe bottlenecking that occurred in the late 1970s—caused by prairie dog poisoning, sylvatic plague, and general loss of prairie habitat—reduced the population to just eighteen individuals in Meeteetse, Wyoming. All BFFs in existence today, whether in the wild or in captivity, can trace their lineage to this small colony.


I first met George a few months ago, at the Black Cat. He was stocking liquor, crouching at the heels of the female bartender, who was being seriously heckled by the woman to my right. The heckler’s name was Earleane, and she wanted to play the jukebox, but she didn’t have any money, so she resorted to berating the bartender.

“Flash us those itty bitty titties,” Earlene said. “Go on. It’s OK to be little bitty.” I didn’t know at the time she was paraphrasing Alan Jackson.

George stood from his crouch. A short man with a soaked bandana, he locked eyes with Earlene and, without a word, managed to stem her cruelty.

“It’s not like we’d have even seen them,” Earlene said to me.

I shrugged.

A man called Earlene over. He offered her a few bucks for the jukebox if she’d drive his truck to the Dollar General and get him some smokes. “I’d rather hand over my keys than my life,” he said, quoting some stale PSA slogan. He groped Earlene’s thigh, and she squealed.

“Buy me a drink, too,” she said.

“OK. But none of that hoochie-coochie shit.” He glanced at the jukebox.

With that, a deal was struck. She picked her songs and left.

“That was dumb,” George said. He was sitting next to me now, slurping a beer, nodding his head to a John Prine/Iris DeMent duet. “She won’t even get to hear the songs she was carping about that whole time.”

George told me he owned the feed store in Seligman, that he was also a stocker and a trapper, and had a few other odd jobs in the town. He was maybe the only over-employed worker in Seligman.

I told him I could see Seligman’s “good livin’.” I cringed at my colloquial affect, which tends to surface when I’m getting chatty in rural Arizona. I told him I could imagine myself living here.

George groaned in sympathy. “I moved here when—well, I woke up one day in Prescott, looked out my front window, and saw a backhoe. They were developing the wide-open field in front of me. That field was the only thing I liked about my old place. So, I moved to Seligman. It’s cheap, and there’s nothing but wide open.”

I told George about the article in The Onion that claimed “the entire land area of North America [will] be subsumed by the suburban sprawl spreading out from Scottsdale by 2030,” that the sprawl will eventually cross the Pacific Ocean and encompass most of Asia the following decade. George giggled. Because of inadequate transportation infrastructure, the article warns, as much as 1,200 to 1,400 hours will be added to the daily commute.

Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” was on the jukebox now, and the man who financed the song was irate. He told the bartender he was going to “unplug the fucker.” When she told him it wasn’t allowed, he decided to go outside to wait for his cigarettes. The Fox 10 Phoenix News (which rarely makes mention of Yavapai County, let alone Seligman) hung above our heads, showing Trump—not yet president, not even president-elect—standing side-by-side with Joe Arpaio, America’s Toughest Sheriff. There was footage of Arpaio’s Tent City, an outdoor extension of the overpopulated Maricopa County Jail, which Arpaio himself referred to as “a concentration camp,” and where prisoners’ shoes melted in 145-degree heat.

“Even the jail is sprawling.” Another voice, to my left, joined the conversation.

The Valley of the Sun is the sprawl of sprawls: its unchecked population has swollen to 4.5 million people, which would qualify the city of Phoenix alone as the 32nd most populous state in the nation. A single exurb like Mesa now has more people than the city of Saint Louis. The Gateway Arch, which according to the association that founded it, was meant to be a “permanent . . . memorial to the . . . western territorial expansion of the United States,” is no longer a symbol of westward ambition, but an omen signaling “Mission Accomplished—Now What?” Even if Phoenix doesn’t make it to Asia, it’s at least on pace to extend to the United States-Mexico border. Growth Nation reports Phoenix has experienced an annual population growth of 4 percent for the past forty years, much of it southward toward the Phoenix-Casa Grande-Tucson corridor.

Once, while night-hiking the Rincon Mountains outside of Tucson, I raised a light meter to zenith to measure the sky quality. The light of Phoenix (even the light of Las Vegas, over 400 miles away) saturated Tucson’s night sky. Even slight variations in the phase of the moon can affect the behavior of many small mammal species, including BFFs; imagine the impact of terrestrial artificial light encroaching on habitat. Seligman is only two hours, forty minutes north of Phoenix, and two hours, forty minutes south of Las Vegas; it seems it’s only a matter of time until the backhoe migrates to George’s front yard once more.


Now, at the ferret release event, I’m standing with George and a couple of ranch-hands. Only “here for the free food,” George points out his house over the canyon. I ask the ranchers what they think about the ferret. “It got us out of work today,” one says, “so we’re off to a great start.”

We’re waiting for the speakers to queue at the podium. Before that, though, the intern who had first arranged the podium steps up to it again and reluctantly waves at us.

“I’ve got a part here,” she says, lifting a sheet of plastic. “It came from the bottom of a Nissan.”

A man wearing a Save the Black-Footed Ferret T-shirt claims it and walks toward the parking area.

For the next half hour, a slew of ferret-lovers speak, including a wildlife specialist, a grassland coordinator, a conservation-and-science director, a fish-and-wildlife manager, and a game-and-fish retiree. They praise the voters and volunteers of Arizona. They cry out: “Embrace the weasel!” One person dubs the Aubrey Valley the “premier site for ferret reintroduction” while another suggests “the recovery belongs to the north.” Someone skeptically mentions the Navajo’s claim that the ferret has made its way to their reservation. Everyone is doing their best to avoid politics on this day of celebration. For twenty years, the BFF population has been spurting in Seligman. Someday soon, it might even surpass the population of the town itself.

Once the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is invoked, though, the presentation gets a little muddled. The ESA is praised for its inherent flexibility. It is rebuked because it impinges upon landowners. It is misconstrued: “We’re not trying to save every last rat in the country,” people! There’s no doubt that the BFF, an original from the Class of ’73, is still extant because of the Act. According to legal scholar J. B. Ruhl, the ESA determines which species to protect and which threats to regulate, and can serve as “a viable way to respond to ecological reshuffling of species” as well as “an effective tool to guide human adaptation measures.” Ruhl even goes so far as to say the ESA should be adapted for climate change—that land managers should be coerced by the statute to aid in the safe passage of climate-threatened species through the tenuous corridors of the Anthropocene.

This ethic of stewardship over ownership is shared by most ranchers in Arizona. The famous Babbitt ranching outfit, among the first to open its gates to the ferret, invokes Aldo Leopold in its constitution, saying it intends to “[change] the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.”

In the midst of the sixth mass extinction, we can no longer frame impending zoological impoverishment as an “either/or choice between mitigation and adaptation,” Ruhl argues. In coordination with the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program in Colorado, zoos throughout the country are developing vaccines and ex situ reproductive techniques to allow ferrets to endure bouts of plague and maintain their genetic diversity. In 2015, according to J. G. Howard and a team of conservationists, eight black-footed ferret offspring “were produced using thawed sperm samples” that had been collected via electro-ejaculation and then stored in liquid nitrogen for two decades. The semen bank comes from the original Meeteetse population. Imagine, for example, if Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926) was artificially inseminated with spermatozoa from her very-great grandfather, William the Conqueror (born 1028). It’s kind of like that. In the case of a small breeding population, artificially mating with your distant progenitor would actually significantly “[enhance] gene diversity” and lower “measures of inbreeding.”

When the ferrets are brought from their trailers, people howl. Their cages are set into three truck beds. I climb into the first. On my knees, I peek through the lattice, wondering if this one is a veritable chip off the old liquid-nitrogen block. How far this species has come since it was first described in John James Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. And yet it’s mostly the same. My eyes scan upward from the black nib of the cylindrical tail to the interspersion of fine and coarse hairs on the ferret’s underside. Up farther, just below the ears, and suddenly I remember the one time I touched a living ferret. It was anesthetized, limp in a trailer, as it was inoculated. I thought then how Audubon never set his failing eyes on a live ferret; instead, he ran his fingers through a pelt he received by post while his naturalist buddy, Reverend John Bachman, described the palette: “roots whitish, with a yellowish tinge, broadly tipped with reddish-brown.” With its Mickey Mouse face, the ferret looks like the kind of creature you might ask to sign your Disney autograph book. One loud chitter, though, and I know to back away. I leap to a seat above the wheel well. 


You needn’t leave my house to feel as if you’re on the road and beneath big sky. In the entryway hall, my wife has hung a large print of a black-and-white Life photograph by Andreas Feininger. It’s twenty-four inches of cumulus sky above six inches of asphalt. There’s a Texaco station, two cars, and even, it seems, a hitchhiker. When she first hung it, I told her the scene reminded me of Seligman. Later, I discovered it was Seligman.

From my driveway, you can hear the Santa Fe Railroad chuffing east to Winslow or west to Williams, especially on Sundays. On windy days, you can even hear the traffic on Route 66, which runs parallel with the tracks. If you time it right, pull out of the driveway just as you hear the first in a series of low-pitched whistles a third of a mile away, you can catch all the train-tripped green lights on 66 and travel at the same pace as the train.

Three miles down, on the right, there’s a series of motels with 66 kitsch (one’s named the 66 Motel). There’s even a brewery called Mother Road, where the beers are all named after the road or its -side. Buy a flight, and it’s like drinking and driving your way down 66, away from Flagstaff, toward Seligman: Mother Road Kölsch Style Ale, Roadside American Ale, Lost Highway Double Black IPA, Tower Station IPA, etc. (You’ll want to bring a designated driver for this trip.)

You’ll know you’ve reached your destination because the sign will tell you: “Welcome to Seligman/Birthplace of Route 66.” Turning onto the main street, you’ll see the small white house where Angel Delgadillo grew up. Son of a machinist from Jalisco, Angel used to stand in front of that house with his many brothers and sisters, waiting for the sun to dim just so. And when the big long line of cars came rolling into his city, their headlights like a continuous projector bulb, they’d dance to banjo or trombone, piano or drums, even daddy’s guitar (the Delgadillos were a family of instrumentalists), and their silhouettes would project onto the white house. It was as if they were on television, Angel remembered, recounting the anecdote as part of the Route 66 Oral History Project. “We would make shadows on the walls. We would dance and play, and we would stomp on each other’s shadows to erase one another,” he said.

Sitting in his barber’s chair, Angel recalled what happened on September 22, 1978. At 2:30 PM, Interstate 40 bypassed that stretch of Route 66, taking passengers away from the Seligman business district. “The state wouldn’t forget to put signs up for us,” Angel told his older brother, Juan. But it did. “And the world forgot about us.” The fictional setting of Radiator Springs in Pixar’s Cars is based on Seligman. In one scene, the race-car protagonist, Lightning McQueen, is parked at a scenic vista. Watching the stream of cars on the Interstate, he says, “They’re driving right by. They don’t even know what they’re missing.”


By the time the Cars creators interviewed Angel Delgadillo, he had been promoted to “Mayor of the Mother Road,” having established Seligman as the Birthplace of Historic Route 66—a deceptive epithet meant to reclaim traffic lost to the Interstate. (66 was actually “born” in Springfield, Missouri; Seligman was just the first town to dub its bit of the road “historic.”) Still, Seligman lays claim to the longest uninterrupted stretch of original pavement from the Main Street of America.

Now, thanks to Angel Delgadillo’s efforts, thousands of drivers have returned to 66—and Seligman—to pay their respects. With all this nostalgia drifting through, road mortality for small animals is certain to increase; it may be only a matter of time until the Roadkill Café is pressured to resume its “you kill it, we grill it” policy. In the past year, I’ve already seen a handful of prairie dogs splayed on the asphalt, and Cordova’s team has captured multiple ferrets on one side of 66 only to recapture them on the other side. They’ve even crossed the interstate. “They must have found the culvert and went underneath the road,” Cordova said. “Or—who knows?—maybe they just went over the median.”

Ferrets forced to reckon with the road, though, may wise up before long. In 2002, ecological models showed it takes an average of fifteen vehicles per minute for a road to become “an absolute barrier” to otters (a cousin to the ferret). Regardless of the ferret’s ability to adapt, as reintroduction sites proliferate throughout Arizona—four more ranches hope to opt in soon—it will be increasingly important to remember that, as one study concluded, “the fragmentation of habitats… [is] associated with reduced species richness.” In the Aubrey Valley, the primary fragmenter of habitats is Route 66.


From the historic Route 66 General Store in downtown Seligman, you could follow a series of country roads (Fort Rock Road, Sol Lane, Powerline Road) to the staging area at Double O. See how this wilderness is barely so? If we set aside more land, “populations of species that were dangerously small will have space to grow,” Wilson says. “Rare . . . species doomed by development will escape their fate.”

We wait for the cage door to whip open, for the first ferret to scuttle onto Double O’s land. Its coffee bean nose and white whiskers breach. After a few brief breaths, all of us silent, only road noise whooshing behind us, the ferret falls into an entrance mound for a nap until night.

About the Author

Lenhart Author Photo
Lawrence Lenhart

Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19) and a dozen essays about the black-footed ferret. His prose appears in Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

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