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
(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.