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Ranchers in south Phillips County aren't worried so much about the proposed return of the black-footed ferret as they are about the federal regulations it will bring with it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks plan to reintroduce the ferret to this remote area south of Malta this fall or next fall.A captive-breeding program brought the ferret back from the brink of extinction, and now wildlife agencies are trying to return it to the wild. The first release site was in Wyoming.

The Phillips County area north of the Missouri River was selected for the second release mainly because of its great number of prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs are the prime food source for ferrets.

"The people here aren't really so opposed to the black-footed ferret as they are to the land restrictions that might come because of the ferret," said Ken Blunt, who lives 50 miles south of Malta in the middle of the reintroduction area.

The abundant prairie dogs in the area strip range land of vegetation, so ranchers poison them with zinc phosphide applied to oats. They couldn't continue the poisoning, even on private land, if the ferrets are reintroduced as an endangered species, Blunt said.

But wildlife officials propose to classify the ferret as a "non-essential experimental population" to placate the ranchers.

Any ferret found between the Milk and Missouri rivers and from the west boundary of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to the Valley County line will be considered experimental. Those that stray outside that area will be considered endangered.

The experimental designation "drops the status from endangered to threatened, allowing us to capture animals and remove them from lands where they're causing a problem," said Ron Stoneberg, state wildlife biologist at Hinsdale.

Ranchers want guarantees that the experimental designation will not be changed to an endangered designation in the future.

Blunt said if the ferret were introduced under an endangered status, there also would probably be restrictions on prairie dog shooting and on other agricultural chemicals.

Stoneberg said ferrets probably would not eat the poisoned oats and probably would not die from eating poisoned prairie dogs.

Even with the experimental status, anyone who intentionally harmed or killed a ferret would face the same penalties as if it were classifed as endangered: a maximum of a $50,000 fine and a year in prison.

Stoneberg said there will be no prairie dog control on the C.M. Russell wildlife refuge, but "on BLM lands we will control prairie dogs, with zinc phosphide, shooting and range management."

According to the plan, 26,000 acres of prairie dog towns will be maintained as food for the ferrets.

Area ranchers want the plan to assure the control of prairie dogs, and that the Bureau of Land Management won't restrict the number of cows that can graze on BLM-leased lands.

The draft plan prohibits dogs in ferret areas, since ferrets are susceptible to canine distemper. Ranchers would like to be able to use vaccinated dogs.

Wildlife officials will examine public comments to the reintroduction plan and rewrite it.