Black-footed ferrets, the Masked Bandits of the Northern Great Plains, are the only known native ferret species in North America. Their large front paws and claws are well developed for digging. Since 90% of their diet consists of prairie dogs, their large skull and strong jaws are adapted for eating meat.
Originally, black-footed-ferrets were found in west-central North America, from northern Mexico o southern Canada.
Black-footed ferret hunting a prairie dog. Credit: Kimberly Fraser / USFWS
STATUS: The black-footed ferret are listed on CITES Appendix I and classified by IUCN as Endagered.
-Prairie dogs population decline: the main food source of the black-footed ferret started disappearing due to an extensive campaign to hunt and poison prairie dogs, which were considered pests.
- Fragmentation of habitat: the reduction of continuous areas of habitat to smaller and geographically separated patches can lead to inbreeding. The low genetic diversity decreases the immune response which will affect the survival ability in the event of an epidemy. In 1984, an outbreak to canine distemper devastated the remaining ferret population. By 1985, there were less than 20 individuals in the wild.
In the late 1970’s it was thought that the black footed ferret had gone extinct. However, in 1981 a small population was found in Wyoming. In order to save this species from extinction, a captive breeding program was founded by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986, and the last 12 remaining individuals were brought into captivity. Together with 6 already captive ferrets, they started a founding population of 18 individuals.
In 1991, the first 49 captive-born juvenile ferrets were released into the wild. Since then, animals have been released in multiple reintrudtcion sites. In order to maximize survival ability, soon-to-be reintroduced animals are preconditioned. These ferrets are place in outdoor pens for a 30-day period, where they are exposed to natural burrow systems and livre prairie dogs. Preconditioning is an essential pre-cursor to reintroducing these animals so that they can to develop survival skills and be prepared for the harsh life in the wild.
1: Pre-conditioning pens; 2,3: Reintroduction of captive born black-footed ferrets; 4: Black-footed ferret in the wild. Source: Blackfootedferret.org
Despite the reintroduction program success, lack of food sources and diseases outbreak still continue to threaten this species survival. In 1999, there was an outbreak of sylvatic plague, a disease that can wipe out entire prairie dog colonies in less than a month. So, to protect the main food source of the black footed ferrets, vaccines against the plague are being distributed with the help of drones. These machines deliver the vaccine by dropping pellets that taste like peanut butter- a prairie dog’s favorite treat. Saving the black footed ferret population includes protecting its’ main food source.
To this date, there is an estimated 370 individuals left in the wild, thanks to the breeding and reintroduction programs. Each year, about 150-220 black-footed ferrets are released in 29 reintroduction sites in Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, Canada and Mexico.
Currently, there are 5 facilities that participate in this conservation program: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Louisville Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Smithsonian Zoological Park and Toronto Zoo.
More efforts are needed in order to protect the black-footed ferret population and their food sources.
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VIDEO: The Harsh Reality of Saving Endangered Ferrets, National Geographic h: ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS1tcdDdV8c