A Rare and Endangered species in your own backyard

Black-footed ferret Image by Kasey Burrus

Black-footed ferret
Image by Kasey Burrus

In our growing and ever changing world, extinction rates have soared greater than ever. Around the world, species are threatened with extinction due to many issues that include: poaching, agricultural work, deforestation and urbanization. Most people know about the threatened status of the flagship species like pandas, rhino, elephants and our big cats. However, there are few people that are aware of the endangered species in their own backyard. The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was once known to freely inhabit what is now known as City Park in the town of Fort Collins Colorado (2). What is a black footed ferret some may ask? These charismatic and ferocious creatures are thought to have descended from the Eupoean polecat (Mustela eversnanni) and are closely related to the domesticated ferret (Mustela putorius) one can buy at a local pet store (1). It is not unusual for most people to have never heard of a black-footed ferret before.

The black-footed ferret has been flirting with extinction since what was thought to be its last know population was found in 1981 (2). It was 36 years ago that this species was on the verge of extinction when the last known population of 9 ferrets were brought into captive breeding to try and save. However, the captive breeding program was unsuccessful and its failure was attributed to a lack of knowledge about the species. Just 2 years later on a large ranch in Meeteese Wyoming, another population of 120 ferrets was found. This discovery was a rare and incredible find since the black-footed ferret was thought to have gone extinct. Biologists were determined to keep this population from plummeting to extinction again. However, an unexpected turn of events happened when an outbreak of K-9 distemper struck the ferret population and killed over 85% of the remaining ferrets. The team of biologists had to make the difficult decision to either bring the last 18 surviving ferrets into another captive breeding program or leave them in the wild and see if they survived (2). This time biologists were careful to observe the behavior, reproduction, feeding habits and life histories of ferrets. These key features are important for the captive breeding and rehabilitation of a species because life in captivity can be so much more fragile than life in the wild.

Another crucial aspect to protecting any threatened species is figuring out what is putting the species on the brink in the first place. After careful research and observations of the ferret’s natural habitat, it became clear that this species relies solely on extensive prairie dog colonies. The prairie dogs that live in the colonies are the black-footed ferrets primary source of food. So, the success of the colonies contributes to the success of the ferret species. Another important contribution to a successful reintroduction relies on the imprinting of killing their natural food source, prairie dogs. The imprinting that happens while still in captivity has a small window of opportunity for it to be successful and must occur within the first 60 days of life. This learned behavior is crucial to their survival in the wild once they are released and have their own kin to raise and teach.

The captive breeding program started in Wyoming but now resides in Northern Colorado Just 20 miles from Fort Collins. The facilities house over 200 ferrets and, as of fall 2014, the 3rd ferret release in Colorado happened in Soapstone, just a few miles outside of the City of Fort Collins. After 35 years, the program is looking to be very successful but still has a lot of work to do. As a breeding facility, they can contribute to the growth of the population of ferrets, but they cannot save their habitat alone. Education on prairie dog habitats and conservation is an important aspect to saving the black-footed ferret and many others species that live in this unique habitat.

– Kasey Burrus

Work Cited

(1) The Animal Files. “European Polecat.” The Animal Files. 5 Jan. 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.theanimalfiles.com/mammals/carnivores/polecat_european.html.

(2) Gober, Pete. “Black-footed Ferret Recovery. Are We There Yet?” Endangered Species Program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/news/episodes/bu-01-2012/black-footed_ferret/index.html.



16 thoughts on “A Rare and Endangered species in your own backyard

  1. leorah

    How do the ferrets impact their ecosystems? Obviously they eat prairie dogs, but in those sites where they have be re-released, have we seen changes in the ecosystem compositions? Both animals and vegetation?

    I’m also wondering if there are parallel stories to the black footed ferret where the captive breeding failed and the population was lost, like in the first attempt described here.

    If you can get the program’s consent, it might be cool to add a link here to the captive breeding facility so people can look into it more, including anyone in the area who might want to learn about the animals or about helping/volunteering.

  2. mplatt

    It is very interesting how, after a first failed attempt, fate gave us a second chance to bring back this cool species. Do you know what happened to the first failed attempt at captive breeding? Was it something they changed that helped them become successful the second go around?

    I never knew that the ferrets imprinted on their prey. I know many captive breeding programs have to teach the animals how to hunt or avoid predators but I wonder how these researchers imprinted the prairie dog on the ferrets while teaching them at such a young age they are supposed to eat them. If you know how they did this I would love to know!

  3. smorton

    Like Leorah, I would be interested to see the effects that re-released ferrets have had on ecosystem composition. As prairie dogs are mainly herbivores, the reintroduction of a top predator (black footed-ferrets) should alter their foraging behaviors. It would be interesting to see how prairie dog foraging ranges change when in the presence of ferrets. You would think that vegetation would be released and foraging by prairie dogs would be suppressed. Perhaps it is the case that prairie dogs retained anti-predator defenses during the time ferrets were removed from the landscape, in this case ferrets may not alter the ecosystem as drastically.

  4. Cristiana Falvo

    I did not know that the black-footed ferrets relied on the prairie dog population. It is interesting and relevant that an endangered species is so dependent on an invasive/problematic species for humans. If people recognize this it could be a plausible solution to introduce ferrets as a biocontrol for prairie dogs, potentially stabilizing both populations.

    1. Lisa Angeloni

      I just want to address one issue raised in Cristiana’s post. Even though prairie dogs are often treated as pests by humans, they’re actually not an invasive species. They’re an important part of the native ecosystem; in fact, the black-tailed prairie dog is often described as a “keystone species” and “ecosystem engineer”, essentially a critical species for normal ecosystem function. Their numbers and distribution has dramatically declined, so protecting prairie dog populations will be an important part of black-footed ferret recovery.

  5. Lisa Angeloni

    The black-footed ferret story is an amazing lesson in how ex-situ conservation efforts (including some knowledge of animal behavior) can help a species recover from the brink of extinction. Of course they still face a lot of threats. You made an important point that the success of black-footed ferret recovery is dependent on the success of prairie dog colonies….. One of the ongoing threats to prairie dogs (in addition to habitat loss and direct removal by humans) is sylvatic plague. A Colorado State University graduate student, Travis Livieri, is studying the effects of plague and plague mitigation measures on black-footed ferrets. Keep an eye out for Travis’s upcoming work, and check out the website of the non-profit he directs, Prairie Wildlife Research: http://www.prairiewildlife.org.

  6. mberne

    I never knew that the black footed ferret population was at such a low number! Deciding whether or not to bring the remaining individuals into captivity must have been heavily reliant on the fact they they knew enough about their natural behavior for it to be successful. Reintroduction could be important for controlling the populations of prairie dogs!
    Was the population given a vaccine against K-9 distemper? Do prairie dogs also carry this disease and can it be contracted to black footed ferrets?
    This is a great example of how important behavior is to captive breeding and conservation efforts!

  7. Savimay

    I really enjoyed your article. It got me thinking about some research I’ve conducted about Pawnee National Grasslands. I recently interviewed a woman that works at the protected area. They have a threshold prairie dog population that they strive to keep and anytime the prairie dogs go over the threshold the park will poison them. I asked her if the protected area has ever considered introducing black-footed ferrets to control populations, and she said that they haven’t. I feel like introducing black-footed ferrets rather than poisoning would be an alternative that would please all parties involved.

  8. ematth

    I agree with Leorah, it would be really interesting to see what happens when these ferrets are reintroduced to an area that may have already adapted to life without ferrets. And in addition, what failures have occurred when an entire species was brought into a captive breeding program.

    I love your title! Most people probably don’t expect endangered species to be in their backyard because they seem more abundant when we see them frequently. It would be really interesting to know how many endangered or threatened species do inhabit areas close to residences.

  9. reneev

    It’s great that they have so many ferrets in the breeding facility and released back into the wild now! Do you think it’s a big risk for another outbreak of a disease to wipe out a lot of the wild ferrets? Especially since they are all so closely related now, would it be more likely that problems like that spread faster throughout the population?

  10. amajor

    I have known about the black-footed ferret for a long time and in fact, back in my hometown, I have known a good number of ranchers (my old boss among) who have actually retried to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to release some black-footed ferrets on their property as a form of biological control for the prairie dog towns in their ranches. But, for the vast majority or all of them, they didn’t meet the criteria on having a breeding population of black-footed ferrets in their properties. I was told it was mostly because they didn’t have enough prairie dogs to sustain a breeding population. But when you mentioned the canine distemper, I can definitely understand a bit more about the resistance of this idea. I could imagine the ranchers’ dogs might unintentionally pass canine distemper to the ferrets and wipe them out. So, when I heard about the ferrets being released north of here, I would have to say that I’m pretty much happy about that, both that the species is recovering and they are wild in my state. I long for the day when they can be able to be released in more ranch lands, without fear of a disease wiping them out. I would have to say that this article is a grand one at that.

  11. Lacey Humphreys

    I think that knowing the breeding, social and foraging behavior of an endangered species is very important for successful reproduction in captivity and subsequent release into the wild. I really like how you brought the problem right into our own backyard. I think this gives people more motivation to go out and do something about it because it is a species that you can observe in real life instead of just looking at pictures of them on the internet. I am curious to know if there has been any bottle-neck effect in the population due to it’s extremely small size to begin with. Also, how do you track them after release to see if they are surviving?

  12. ssteele1

    This a really good article, it summarizes black-footed ferrets and the recovery nicely. Where did you get your information on kits imprinting on prairie dogs? I work/volunteer with the breeding center and this does not occur to my knowledge. In fact, the ferrets don’t even eat prairie dog meat until they are almost ready to be released. Ferrets are considered pre-mature at 60 days of age and out the “at-risk” zone. In the wild, between 60-70 days old is when they would come above ground for the first time. Anyway, around this age they are exposed to small live prey to learn how to kill, but not to prairie dogs as far as I know. It would be interesting to bring this up to my coordinator, maybe it could be implemented sooner in the kits’ lives.

    I also really liked your representation of how the species re-surfaced and how they were found. That’s the “true” story I’ve heard from the breeding center, but I’ve heard told so many different ways! Funny how stories get misconstrued. Good research! 😉


  13. Amy D'Arcey

    I’m curious too about the imprinting and how they learn to hunt. It’s such a complicated process teaching baby animals how to be wild and it seems like we’ve messed it up a lot in the past. Lucky conservation and animal behavior are beginning to work together, this seems like one place where they can definitely help each other!

    I like the idea of “selling” the conservation of the black-footed ferrets to people who consider prairie dogs pests as controls for them. It’s all about framing the needs of conservation in monetary terms I guess.

  14. Savimay

    This is one of my favorite captive breeding success stories. It’s so nice to hear about one of them working out when we normally hear about how captive breeding failed. Especially with how dire the situation was with the black-footed ferrets, I am ecstatic that they are being reintroduced successfully. I really like your title as well, it would be awesome if black-footed ferrets lived in my backyard.

  15. amccoy15

    I think the black footed ferret story really shows why we need to know the behavior patterns of any animal to help them in any situation because sometimes what we might think is helping might do the opposite for a certain species.

Comments are closed.