The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan would reintroduce ferrets in new areas while officials work more closely with private landowners to avoid a political backlash from agricultural interests.
If the effort works, black-tailed ferret numbers could grow to 3,000 animals in coming years, versus about 500 in the wild now, said the federal government's ferret recovery coordinator, Peter Gober.
The failure of some prior reintroductions underscores that success is not guaranteed.
"We'd like to scatter those populations across as many of those 12 states as we can," Gober said. "The best way to work with people is to work with them voluntarily."
Key to the plan is the preservation of prairie dog colonies that ferrets depend on for survival. Many farmers and ranchers regard prairie dogs as a nuisance because they strip grass from grazing lands, both for the prairie dogs to eat and so they can keep a better eye out for predators.
Black-footed ferrets were once found across a range that stretched from Texas to the Canadian border. It also included Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Widespread poisoning of prairie dogs and the conversion of land for grazing wiped out most of the animals.
In 1981, after scientists had written off the species as extinct, a solitary enclave was found near Meeteetse, Wyo.
Through a captive breeding program, wildlife official began reintroducing ferrets. In the years since, almost 4,000 ferrets have been released at 21 sites in eight states. Some of those populations disappeared after plague wiped out nearby prairie dog colonies.
Similar mixed results are expected in the future, as periodic outbreaks of plague wipe out prairie dog colonies in new ferrets reintroduction areas.
But with continued hands-on management, Gober described the ferrets' future as akin to lights on a Christmas tree: As some populations blink out, reintroductions elsewhere will provide new "lights" to keep the species from again descending toward extinction.
Costs for the recovery plan are estimated at more than $50 million during the next decade. Gober said that figure was speculative and could change.
Maintaining the prairie dog colonies also would help other species that depend on them, including golden eagles and swift foxes, Gober said.
Eastern Montana rancher Lesley Robinson has her doubts. Robinson is a county commissioner in Phillips County, the site of a 2001 ferret reintroduction that failed to take hold.
She questioned the amount of money being spent on the program, and said many ranchers in her area remain wary of a program they worry could limit their ability to control prairie dog colonies.
"I don't think ranchers are against black-footed ferrets; it's everything that goes with the process," Robinson said.
But Lauri Hanauska-Brown with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the federal government's plan offers a "new way of thinking about ferret recovery" and promises much-needed flexibility.
That includes a recently adopted "safe harbor" program that assures landowners and tribes who voluntarily agree to have ferrets reintroduced that they won't face penalties if one of the animals is accidentally killed.