Black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes
ESA status: endangered and experimental, non-essential
Black-footed ferrets wear many hats. They are charismatic animals with black masks and feet and a playful demeanor. They are fierce little predators, 18 to 24 inches long and weighing between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds, who can take down prey animals their size or sometimes larger. They are secretive and nocturnal, rarely seen except at night. And they are great dancers, doing a characteristic opened-mouthed arch-backed backward hop when playing. But though its body is long, thin, and bendy, in some ways the black-footed ferret is not very flexible; it is a specialized prairie dog predator, and eats almost nothing else. They used to dance around in a large area of the Great Plains, mountain basins, and semi-arid grasslands of North America. But then something sinister started happening to their food source.
Prairie dogs started to disappear, poisoned and shot as part of federal extermination campaigns to benefit livestock growers. The grassland habitat of both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets started to shrink, fragmented by conversion to cropland and human development. Introduced sylvatic plague could sweep through prairie dog colonies, causing nearly 100 percent mortality, and any ferret unlucky enough to eat an infected prairie dog would be infected in turn. It takes approximately 100 to 150 acres of prairie dog colony to support one ferret, so as prairie dog populations shrank, the black-footed ferret dwindled right alongside them, until there were none left in the wild.
The last known wild population persisted in the vicinity of Meeteetse, Wyoming, until early 1987. Some of those last Meeteetse ferrets were captured and used to start a captive breeding program to save this fascinating mammal from oblivion. Captive-born ferrets were reintroduced to Shirley Basin, Wyoming, in the early 1990s; since then they have also been reintroduced to South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Utah, Kansas, Colorado, and Chihuahua, Mexico.
Though the black-footed ferret was pulled back from the brink of extinction just in time, it doesn’t have an easy road to recovery ahead of it. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has eroded those safeguards by developing special rules that deny protection for the ferrets’ main food source and the architect of the dens they use for shelter and birthing their kits: prairie dogs. All five species of prairie dog have suffered dramatic declines and occupy only around 2 percent of their former ranges. Yet wholesale poisoning and shooting of prairie dogs continues, and the populations of white-tailed prairie dogs, Gunnison’s prairie dogs, and black-tailed prairie dogs that black-footed ferrets prey on face a myriad of threats.
At present there are no known ferret populations that were not reintroduced, and all those wild ferret populations remain small, fragmented, and intensively managed. Only a few of the wild populations contain adults that were born in the wild. Because their captive founding population was so miniscule, ferrets today have lost around 90 percent of their genetic diversity. Such a drastic decrease in genetic diversity can lead to inbreeding and reduced fitness including immune system dysfunction and reduced reproductive success.
WildEarth Guardians wants to make sure that this captivating creature wasn’t brought back from the edge of extinction only to disappear again. We are working to protect all five species of prairie dog and the wide variety of animals that depend on them, including the black-footed ferret. We are also working to reform the Fish and Wildlife Service’s special regulations that degrade ferret safeguards.
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photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service