Landmark is ASC’s groundbreaking project to provide “boots on the ground” support for the American Prairie Reserve management team. Wildlife survey crews consist of skilled outdoors men and women who live and work on Montana’s northern Great Plains, collecting data that informs APR’s conservation management decisions.

Story and Photos by Christin M. Jones

The excitement in the car was palpable. It was after 2 a.m. on a mid-August morning, and we were quickly making our way to a prairie dog colony where a rare black-footed ferret had been spotted.

When we arrived, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Randy Matchett was waiting in his truck, his vehicle-mounted spotlight trained on a burrow 25 yards away.

Landmark crew members Jonah Gula and Sofia Haggberg wait for a ferret to appear from its burrow.

Matchett has spent the last 25 years working to bring the black-footed ferret back from the brink of extinction.

My first impression of him was that of a reserved man—quiet, but quick to smile, and rarely seen without his cowboy hat. Matchett earned both his undergrad and graduate degrees in wildlife biology from the University of Montana, and in 1987, began working doing projects on the CMR that included prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.
Three other crew members and I had chosen to volunteer our much-prized sleeping hours to help Matchett’s team of scientists and technicians search for these elusive nocturnal animals over an area of eight to 10 square miles on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the American Prairie Reserve.

Black-footed ferrets have been classified as an endangered species in the U.S. since 1967, and it has taken decades of perseverance by people like Matchett to bring them to their current numbers: about 1,000 individuals in the wild, as of fall 2010.

As we slowly walked toward the illuminated burrow, I tensed in anticipation. After several minutes of silence, a female ferret popped her head out of the prairie dog burrow she had commandeered, but a camera shutter’s click sent her scurrying back into safety.

Around the opening of the burrow, Matchett placed a ring-shaped electronic reader capable of detecting a transponder chip embedded under the skin of a ferret. But when she re-emerged, the reading did not detect a chip.


USFWS biologist Randy Matchett

Everyone smiled. This was likely a kit born in the wild this past spring, bringing the total population count in the area up to five known individuals.

In the fight against extinction, every individual counts.

The survival of black-footed ferrets is dependent on healthy prairie dog colonies. Prairie dogs comprise 90 percent ferrets’ diet, and they also live in the burrow systems prairie dogs create and maintain.

Although this was not part of our regular wildlife data collection duties, it was one of many connections made through Landmark, and another exciting night I’ve had while living here.

The next day as I mapped a prairie dog colony, GPS in hand, I had a better understanding of the importance of this ecosystem and the animals that call it home. I am thankful there are places like the American Prairie Reserve and the CMR, where the public can enjoy this beauty.

Find more about the decline, recovery and threats to black-footed ferrets at


Christin Jones grew up in a small agricultural town in northeastern Ohio and graduated from the College of Wooster with a B.S. in archaeology. Following a summer working in Glacier National Park, she moved to Washington D.C. and worked at the Jane Goodall Institute, where she helped Dr. Goodall with her book Hope for Animals and Their World.

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