Black footed Ferret

Common Name: Black-footed ferret
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Mustela
Species: Mustela nigripes

The black-footed ferret, cousin to the European ferret, is a rare gem of the American west. This animal possesses the ability to hunt and kill prairie dogs that are equal to it in size. It preys exclusively on prairie dogs. As prairie dog populations have decreased, the black-footed ferret has been pushed to the brink of extinction. As a result, the black-footed ferret is possibly the most endangered mammal in North America.

Black-Footed Ferret Taxonomy/Description

Black-footed ferrets belong to the weasel family, Mustelidae, which they share with minks, weasels, badgers, wolverines, and otters, in the Mammalian Order Carnivora. Its scientific name is Mustela nigripes, which means "black-footed weasel".

The Black-footed Ferret is 10-12 inches long and weighs approximately 2.5 pounds. The Black-footed Ferret has a long, slender body and short legs. The fur on its sides and back is generally a pale yellow buff with lighter patches on the face, chest, throat and abdomen. The top of the head and middle of the back are dark brown. The feet, tip of the tail and facemask are black.

Black-Footed Ferret Habitat/Diet

The Black-footed Ferret occupies abandoned prairie dog burrows located in the American Midwest.

Black-footed Ferrets have a high metabolic rate and require large quantities of food. Ninety percent of the Black-footed Ferret’s diet consists of prairie dogs which they hunt and kill. Other small rodents, birds, reptiles and insects comprise the remaining 10 percent. On average, each ferret consumes one prairie dog about every 3 to 4 days.

 

Black-Footed Ferret Behavior/Reproduction

The Black-footed Ferret is primarily nocturnal, hunting prairie dogs while they are asleep in their burrows. It spends the majority of its time in underground burrows; coming to the surface for only a few minutes at a time. To explore prairie dog towns, black-footed ferrets sometimes travel large distances at night – up to 4 miles! The distances traveled by males tend to be twice as great as those covered by females. Black-footed ferrets even remain active in winter and scientists study their winter activity by snow tracking. This is an effective tool used to study their behavior. Ferrets do not chose a set den burrow; they live nomadically throughout a home range of about 100 acres. An individual ferret may visit as many as 400 burrows a night. A ferret may drag its prey over 1000 feet in order to find a suitable burrow for feeding.

Black-footed Ferrets become sexually mature at one year of age. Their peak reproductive period occurs between their third and fourth years. The gestation period of the black footed ferret is 41 to 45 days. A typical litter consists of 3 to 4 pups. The young are born blind and helpless, but develop rapidly.

Black-Footed Ferret History/Folklore

The Black-footed Ferret was declared an endangered species in 1967. By 1979 the Black-footed Ferret was thought by wildlife biologists to be extinct. In 1981, a small group of Black-footed Ferrets was discovered on a ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Research was conducted on these ferrets in order to gain insight into their behavior. In 1985, outbreaks of canine distemper and sylvatic plague killed nearly all of the remaining Meeteetse ferrets. A captive breeding program was initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987. Captive breeding efforts have since expanded to include several facilities across the United States and Canada.

Native Americans attributed magical qualities to the Black-footed Ferret because it was active at night. As a result, they frequently used this animal in their rituals.

Our Experiences with Black-Footed Ferrets


photos M. Noonan

In South Dakota, we were very fortunate to study with Doug Sargent, coordinator of the reintroduction efforts being made in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Mr. Sargent introduced us to "Annie", a captive Black-footed Ferret used in their program. He then took us on a tour of a prairie dog town where he taught us how to look for and interpret the signs of ferret activity. It was thrilling to realize that we were in the presence of the few surviving members of this very endangered species.

We also had the pleasure of meeting with Travis Laveri, a representative of the Black-footed Ferret Foundation. During our time with Mr. Laveri we learned a great deal about the conservation of this wonderful species. He brought us to a reintroduction site and showed us what he called a “ferret college”, a system of enclosures where the ferrets learn how to survive in the wild. The ferrets remain in these acclimation pens for the last few weeks before their release, and it is here that they learn to hunt properly in the wild. Mr. Laveri then showed us the equipment that they use to track the progress of the ferrets, and how they keep track of their populations. So far, the population that was released in the area that we visited is stable and seemingly thriving. It was quite an amazing feeling to be standing on ground under which such a beautiful and endangered animal is currently living!

Black-Footed Ferret Conservation


photo M. Noonan

The Black-footed Ferret is arguably the most endangered mammal in North America – maybe even in the entire world! Its current plight is due to the destruction of their principal source of food and habitat – the prairie and the prairie dog. By 1974, Black-footed Ferrets were thought to be extinct. However, in 1981 a ranch dog in Wyoming killed a ferret, leading to the discovery of the last remaining population of Black-footed Ferrets consisting of about 130 individuals. In 1985, nearly the entire population tragically died due to outbreaks of canine distemper and sylvatic plague. When the population reached only 18 members, they were brought into captivity in a desperate attempt to save the species. By 1991, a successful captive breeding program was initiated with a cooperative effort between government agencies and zoological organizations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a Black-footed Ferret recovery program. Since then, major reintroductions to the wild have occurred in six U.S. states, including Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona, as well as Mexico.

The goal is to establish at least 10 separate, self sustaining Black-footed Ferret populations, each of which will contain no less than 30 mature and breeding adults. The team hopes to have successfully released at least 1500 ferrets into the wild by the year 2010.


photo M. Noonan
 

Glossary:

Carnivora - Mammalian Order, which consists of families including cats, weasels, civets, hyenas, raccoons, and bears.

nocturnal - active during the night
 

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