The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program

Charlotte Xia

What is a black-footed ferret? 

The black-footed ferret is a small mammal in North America, currently listed as an “Endangered” species on the IUCN red list. Black-footed ferrets heavily depend on prairie dogs for their survival. Their diet almost exclusively relies on prairie dogs, and they often make homes in abandoned prairie dog burrows in short or middle grass prairies. 

The black-footed ferret is a flagship species for the North American prairie because of its adorable look. Thus, its conservation is essential since it is representative of more than 130 other less well-known species in the North American prairie ecosystem. 

Why are they endangered? 

        While there are direct threats to the black-footed ferret population, they are more impacted by the loss of their main prey. The population of prairie dogs, which they entirely depend on for food and shelter, is threatened for the following reasons. 

1. Loss of habitat: The short and middle grass prairie, where both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets depend on living, has been plowed for crops.

2. Diseases: The black-footed ferret is susceptible to the sylvatic plague, while their main food source, prairie dogs, is also very susceptible to the disease. 

3. Deliberate extermination: Prairie dogs are considered pests to crops, and the U.S. Forest Service allows poisoning them on three federal grasslands. This further reduced the population of prairie dogs which is already in significant decline.

 What Protection Acts have been passed?

 The black-footed ferret was listed as endangered in 1967, and protected under the Endangered Species Act law signed in 1973. Unfortunately, the conservation effort failed, and the species was declared extinct in 1979. 

However, in 1981 a ranch dog caught a black-footed ferret in Wyoming, which led to the discovery of a remaining population. Federal, state and private agencies all dedicated their full efforts to protect the species from repeated extinction. The remaining 18 individuals were captured from the wild between 1985 and 1987. Since then, the captive-breeding and reintroduction program introduced by USFWS was created and started. Captive-breeding is a conservation approach that keeps the endangered species in zoos or other facilities to recover their population numbers, and subsequently reintroduces them to the wild. 

Today, according to the statistics of USFWS, there are about 750 ferrets now living in 17 locations, and another 350 in captive breeding facilities. This is a very significant improvement for a species so close to extinction. Though the conservation efforts of black-footed ferret have temporarily succeeded, their main threats, such as habitat loss and food insecurity still exist. Conservation efforts will need to continue into the future for this species to be better established. 

Sources: Defenders of Wildlife, IUCN Redlist, Nature Works – New Hampshire PBS, The Nature Conservancy, WWF