Black-Footed Ferret

The endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is the only ferret species native to North America.  They are nocturnal animals, spending most of their lives in underground burrows that they steal from their prey - prairie dogs!  As recently as 30 years ago, black-footed ferrets were believed to be extinct.  Fortunately, in 1986, a small group of 18 ferrets was discovered and intensive management is helping this population recover. Today, there are approximately 750 black footed ferrets in North America.

Historically, the greatest threats affecting black-footed ferrets were human-related and included habitat loss, poisoning by ranchers and loss of prey.  The ferret’s sole prey species, the black-tailed prairie dog, was considered a pest by ranchers. In the 19th century, ranchers poisoned and killed over 1 million prairie dogs, effectively eliminating the ferrets’ only source of food!  Currently, ferrets are vulnerable to disease epidemics such as the sylvatic plague and canine distemper since they live in large groups (colonies) where diseases spread rapidly.

In 1986, the original 18 black-footed ferrets were brought into AZA-accredited zoos and the Black-Footed Ferret Species Survival Plan ®  (SSP) Program carefully managed their reproduction.  Since then, the Black-Footed Ferret SSP, along with other AZA conservation partners including the US Fish and Wildlife Service has reintroduced over 700 ferrets into Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico with the hopes of reintroducing a total of more than 1500!.

The AZA Conservation Endowment Fund, and one of its sub-funds, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, has provided over $22,000 in support of the black-footed ferret conservation projects including:

  • $4,780 to university researchers for their work on understanding the effects of the sylvatic plague on the health of black-footed ferrets.
  • $12,240 to university researchers to examine plague transmission methods within prairie dog and ferret populations. 
  • $5,000 to the AZA Black-Footed Ferret SSP to implement a black-footed ferret education program which creates instructional kits of information cards, videos, and slideshows to help zoo educators stress the importance of black-footed ferret conservation management.

Black-Footed Ferret Facts

Status Endangered
Size They are between 18 and 24 inches long with a 6 inch tail.  They weigh between 1 and 3 pounds.
Appearance This slender animal has a yellowish colored coat, pale belly, and a dark tail tip and black feet. The muzzle, throat and forehead are white and there is a black mask around the eyes.
Habitat Black-footed ferrets live in short- and mid-grass prairies in North America.
Diet 90% of the ferret’s diet is prairie dogs, but they may also eat mice and other small rodents.
Breeding Ferrets mate between March and April and females give birth to a litter between 3 and 6 kits.