In 1851 naturalist James Audubon and his colleague, Reverend John Bachman, received a pelt sent by a fur trader along the lower Platte River in Montana of a “new” weasel-like mammal. This was the first official recognition of a new ferret species: Mustela nigripes (“black-footed ferret”). It would be another 25 years before the ferret is sighted again.
By the late 1970’s, the wild North American ferret was thought to be extinct. Not until September 26, 1981, was a member of this species rediscovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming on a privately-owned ranch.
About 100 ferrets were eventually found. But a tragedy struck: bubonic plague, carried by fleas on the rodents they eat, nearly wiped out the remaining population of wild ferrets. These wild ferrets were also highly susceptible to the Canine Distemper Virus transmitted by dogs and other similar species.
By the late 1980’s biologists salvaged only 18 wild-living ferrets. This began a captive breeding program for the black-footed ferret, now under the protection of the US Endangered Species Act. Considered to be a “flag-ship” species, the black-footed ferret is one of more than 130 unique plants and animals that depend on a particular prairie ecosystem, which has all but disappeared on the North American continent due to privatization of lands, ranching, and farming.
In a major collaborative effort, the federal US Fish and Wildlife Service, state, and non-governmental programs have worked diligently to reintroduce these little predators back into their native habitat. After more than three decades of careful breeding and “release” programs, there are now about 1000 free-living individuals in 18 different colonies in the western United States and Mexico. With another 300 black-footed ferrets living in captivity, the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program celebrated its 30th Anniversary of the species rediscovery and the 20th Anniversary of their successful return to the wild.
In the wild, the black-footed ferrets take over abandoned prairie dog tunnels, hoarding food to reduce the ferret’s exposure to larger predators above ground. Prairie dogs make up about 90% of a ferret’s diet, with the remainder being other ground-dwelling species. A single ferret may eat over 100 prairie dogs in one year.
Ranchers and farmers have tried to eliminate the prairie dog, considered a pest to crops and domestic species. Lack of suitable habitat remains the greatest threat to black-footed ferrets today. The black-footed ferret once had a range estimated at 100 million acres in the western plains, which is now reduced to only 2 million acres.
However, efforts to reintroduce the ferret continue to expand. The National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center is located in northern Colorado and the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, as well as zoological institutions in Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Louisville, and Toronto. These facilities will continue to breed and raise captive ferrets, and provide excess animals (approximately 150-250) for annual reintroduction efforts. Even so, these nocturnal hunters still remain one of the most endangered mammals listed of the US Endangered Species Act.
For additional information:
US Fish & Wildlife Service:
Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program