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All Creatures,

Episode 15: Your BFF, the Black Footed Ferret

February 13, 2018


Once though extinct, the Black Footed Ferret has bounced back. In the early 1980s it was thought these animals went extinct. It was not until a small family group was found in a remote area of Wyoming within the United States were these animals were saved. Listen to the amazing story of these fuzzy creatures.

The Decline of the Black Footed Ferret

Black footed ferrets are from the family group called Mustelids. They are distant to relatives to the Honey Badger, which we covered in Episode 10. They have the scientific name Mustela nigripes. They are direct decedents of the Steppe Polecat, which originated in Europe. It is believed the Black footed ferret crossed the Bering Straight land bridge almost 2 million years ago, establishing populations in North America.

The decline of the Black Footed Ferret is directly tied to the rapid decline in its primary food source, the Prairie Dog. Farmers and ranchers in the 20th Century worked hard to eradicate Prairie Dogs in an effort to preserve their land. These animals make up 90% of the Black Footed Ferrets’ diet. Likewise, with the massive culling of these animals, Black Footed Ferret populations also declined. While populations of Prairie Dogs survived, though drastically decreased in number, the Black Footed Ferret completely disappeared. So much so, that in the late 1970s many declared these animals extinct.

The story of how the last population of Black Footed Ferrets is an interesting one and can be read here. Briefly, in 1981 a rancher’s dog in Meeteetse, Wyoming killed one of the last Black Footed Ferrets in the middle of the night. The rancher and his wife discovered the dead animal and thinking it was a species of mink tossed it over their fence. Later, the wife decided she wanted to have the animal stuffed and took it to a local taxidermist. The taxidermist told the couple he could not stuff it since it was a critically endangered animal, a Black Footed Ferret. Shortly thereafter, conservation officials were able to track down the last family group of these animals.

Black Footed Ferret Physiology

These animals have long slim bodies, about 2 feet long (60 cm), and short stout legs, standing only 6 inches (15 cm) at the shoulder. They can weight up to 3 lbs. (1.4 kg). The hair coats of the Black Footed Ferret is white and tan, with black hairs mixed in. Faces have black around the eyes and on their feet.

In the wild, the Black Footed Ferret lives approximately for only 3 years. In captivity, there have been records of them living up to 12 years. Males are called Hobs, females are called Jills, babies are called kits, and a group is called a boogle or business.

Black footed ferrets exhibit an unusual behavior called a ‘War Dance.’ The animal will leap in the air, turning wildly and exhibiting calls. It is thought this is used to confuse predators and even their prey. One of the most amazing and terrifying behaviors is how the Black Footed Ferret’s hunt Prairie Dogs. Generally, this ferret will sneak into the underground burrows of Prairie Dogs in the middle of the night. They will tap the shoulder of their prey to get the Prairie Dog to move positions, even waking them up, before delivering the fatal blow.

The Resurgence of the Black Footed Ferret

Once the last populations of Black Footed Ferrets were found, conservation experts quickly began to monitor their population and institute protective measures. This last family group survived and expanded to over 50 members. Additional pressures, primarily disease (Sylvatic Plague), started to decrease the populations once again and it was decided to intervene.

The Black Footed Ferret only survived due to many experts working for zoos that banded together to come up with an emergency conservation plan. Eighteen individual Black Footed Ferrets were brought into captivity, and a focused breeding plan was hatched. Due to our knowledge of domestic ferret physiology, experts were able to carefully select and breed these animals. Often using artificial techniques such as artificial insemination. Zoos were so successful in saving these animals that they have been reintroduced to many areas of their native habitats. Today, Black Footed Ferrets have been rereleased in Southern Canada, Northern Mexico, and across many locations within the United States.

While nearly 4,000 individuals have been reintroduced at 24 sites, the populations are struggling to survive. There are thought to be a few hundred in the wild, with another few hundred in captivity. While they still have an uphill climb, it is a miracle this species is still with us.

Conservation Tip

Water conservation should be in everyone’s conscious. When we conserve our water, we are making a positive impact on the environment. Therefore, our challenge to you is for you to take a less than 5 minutes shower once a week. Be aware of how much water is wasted when you leave your tap running. If we can reduce our water usage, the wildlife will appreciate it.

Organizations to Support

Lincoln Park Zoo

National Black Footed Ferret Conservation Center

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