A black-footed ferret - a study subject for CNR doctoral student Shaun Grassel.

Meet Shaun Grassel

Year: Fourth year doctoral student
Program: Wildlife Resources
Hometown: Chamberlain, South Dakota

By Sue McMurray

Across the sweeping Great Plains of South Dakota, acres of prairie dog towns display cute, furry rodents that comically pop out of their burrows and greet each other with a sort of kiss. But this habitat is in no way viewed by the public with the same fondness as the popular “Meerkat Manor” on T.V.’s Animal Planet. On the contrary – prairie dogs are often considered a nuisance by ranchers and stockmen whose cattle compete with the little grass-eaters. As a result, prairie dog colonies have been reduced to less than five percent of the area they originally occupied due to habitat destruction, poisoning, shooting and exotic disease.

Their dwindling numbers have had a dire effect on another species that carries the same cuteness factor as well as the same curse of the “varmint” label – the Black-footed ferret. As its main prey, prairie dogs are crucial to the black-footed ferrets’ survival. Eradicating prairie dogs equates with eradicating black-footed ferrets. Currently, they are an endangered species and limited to seven captive populations and a few wild populations.   

Natural resources doctoral candidate and Lower Brule Sioux tribal member Shaun Grassel has a soft spot for the animal kingdom’s “underdogs.”  

“Being outdoors, hunting and fishing are a huge part of my culture,” says Grassel. “When I was in seventh grade, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a wildlife biologist, and I knew that’s what I wanted to be.” 

His passion for conserving rare and imperiled species is what drew him to study with Janet Rachlow, associate professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources.

“The faculty at the University of Idaho are unique in their expertise regarding how animals select and use habitat,” says Grassel. “I came here to become a more effective researcher and learn more about analytical tools and software programs that will help my career.”

While working on his doctorate, he has remained a full-time employee of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe with study sites on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation and Buffalo Gap National Grassland in western South Dakota.

“The ferret study was secondary to my overall focus on game management as a wildlife biologist for the Tribe in South Dakota,” explains Grassel. “Evaluating ferrets initially was part of my job but morphed into something more.”

Grassel’s dissertation addresses factors affecting space use, territoriality, survival and productivity of black-footed ferrets. Specifically, he is focusing on habitat suitability at the eastern edge of their historic range of both prairie dogs and ferrets to answer questions such as how many prairie dogs are needed to have a self-sustaining population of ferrets, and how small prairie dog sites can contribute to ferret recovery.

“This research is pushing the envelope on advancing knowledge about habitat suitability and black-footed ferret recovery,” says Grassel. “This information will be beneficial to key decision makers at the national level.”

Grassel plans to develop a program that would provide land managers, federal agencies and small private land owners with incentives to participate in habitat conservation.

After he graduates in 2012, Grassel and his family will return to South Dakota where he will continue his career with his Tribe and continue serving on the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Team for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.