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Celebrating the Battle for Black-footed Ferret Recovery

By Dan Ashe
min read

The life of the black-footed ferret includes adventure, hard times and an intense desire to survive. This endangered species is a tenacious carnivore that single-handedly kills its larger prey, the prairie dog.  Not only does the black-footed ferret eat the prairie dog, but then it steals its burrow. How's that for efficiency? It’s also a species with a special place in my heart, since my time with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 

On at least three occasions, I had the opportunity to release ferrets into native habitat: in South Dakota on Native American reservation lands; in Denver, CO on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge; and in Meeteetse, WY, on the very ranch lands where ferrets were “rediscovered” and rescued from extinction back in 1981. They were all memorable, but being in Meeteetse, WY and returning the distant progeny of that original rescued colony, was amazing!

We like to say that a species was “brought back from the edge of extinction”, but the black-footed ferret was believed to be extinct, so in a way, it was literally brought back from extinction!  And the population has grown from the last remaining 24 rescued individuals to nearly 700.  Three hundred of these are living in zoos and the USFWS’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, and 300 to 400 survive in the wild in 32 reintroductions found throughout North America’s Great Plains including eight U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico.

The black-footed ferret is an iconic conservation story, used to train and inspire the next generation of wildlife biologists.  The story begins with a misunderstanding of the ecosystem that led to a 1900s government-sponsored poisoning campaign targeting prairie dogs and supporting land conversion for cities, livestock production, and farming.  Even though this misconception has been corrected using science-based management, there is still human-wildlife conflict with prairie dogs and human activities.  To make it even more challenging, sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis) was introduced to North America at the same time.  This bacterial disease, which is spread by fleas, causes devastating losses of both prairie dogs and black-footed ferret populations.  

Image of Black footed ferret
Luckily, there are also field biologists, with ferret-like tenacity, who won’t give up the fight.  Scientists continue to discover new avenues of controlling the spread of plague.  They employ strategies to reduce the flea population using insecticides and to protect prairie dogs and ferrets using a modified plague vaccine that originally was developed for humans.  All ferrets that are born under human care or trapped in the wild are vaccinated.  It is a little more difficult to administer protection to the prairie dogs but scientists and managers have developed new clever methods to deliver the peanut butter bait vaccine using drones or ATVs fitted with automatic bait dispensers.   

Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited zoos play an essential role in black-footed ferret recovery.  The Species Survival Plan® (SSP) has two main goals.  One is to retain the genetic health of this species.  This is especially important because there are no new genes to bring into the population naturally.  So, the SSP members follow strict breeding recommendations and have monthly discussions to overcome the challenges that they are facing.  The second goal is to provide individuals for reintroduction.  Nearly 100 ferrets are released into the wild every year to either augment current sites or are used to initiate new sites.  The SSP in partnership with USFWS have produced more than 9,600 black-footed ferrets from seven founders in the 30+ years of the ex situ breeding program.  This incredible achievement would not have occurred without the blood, sweat, and tears of the passionate people who strive every day to save the ferret.  In addition to the zoos that have breeding populations of ferrets, there are 20 other zoos and museums that care for black-footed ferrets and tell their story every day to their visitors.

Now the black-footed ferret has become an AZA SAFE: Saving Species from Extinction® species.  The SAFE 3-year Conservation Action Plan (CAP) includes discovering the causes of infertility and developing strategies to improve breeding success, thus, securing the genetic health of the ferret and supporting the reintroduction program.  The CAP also sets forth to develop new strategies for engaging stakeholders and the public. 

Recently, we celebrated Black-footed Ferret Rediscovery Day on September 26, the fortunate and fateful day that the last remaining wild ferrets were rediscovered (by a rancher’s dog!) in Meeteetse, Wyo.  It is a day that we can acknowledge how past misunderstandings and biases led to wrong-headed decisions that almost crushed the life out of an entire species; a day when we can recognize how incredibly lucky we were, and work to avoid these “last ditch” conservation efforts; and a day to celebrate all of the ways we are now supporting action to Save Animals From Extinction.  

The black-footed ferret story is ever-inspiring to me. It tells me there is always cause for hope, even in the face of the daunting challenges that our planet faces.  We just have to be as tenacious as the ferret and the people who have supported its recovery. #BeTheFerret!

Special thanks to Dr. Rachel M. Santymire, Lincoln Park Zoo.
Photos Courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo.


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