Recovery of the Black Footed Ferret
The black-footed ferret is North America's only native ferret, and it is one of our most endangered species. The species was thought to be extinct but a small group of animals were discovered in Wyoming in 1981. Seven of those ferrets were taken into a captive breeding program and now they have about 800 descendants; half have been released into the wild and half are in captivity.
Black-footed ferrets are predators and they depend upon prairie dogs for both food and shelter. They hunt prairie dogs almost exclusively; they also use prairie dog burrows, with a little remodeling, as their homes. Prairie dogs are considered a pest by many ranchers, and their numbers have been reduced 98 percent by hunting, poisoning, and habitat conversion.
Black-footed ferrets are vulnerable to distemper and plague, which exist in the prairie dog populations. Hypersensitivity to these diseases may be part of the normal biology of ferrets or it may be a result of having only seven animals to found the current population. In any event, for black-footed ferrets to recover to a self sustaining level, they will need not only adequate prey and habitat but also a disease-free environment, at least until their numbers increase.
We spoke with Dr. Della Garrell, captive program coordinator of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, about her work on black-footed ferrets.