The Black-footed ferret is a small carnivore considered one of the most endangered carnivores in North America – in fact, it was thought to be extinct twice. Only in 1981 was a small relict population discovered near Meteetse, Wyoming – and there began an amazing story of bringing a native species back from near extinction into a captive breeding program and now black-footed ferrets are back in the wild in 19 release sites 17 in the United States, one in Canada and one in Mexico.
Black-footed Ferrets are formidable small predators that have evolved to prey primarily on Prairie Dogs. They also are dependent on the Prairie Dog burrows for shelter, taking over burrows as living quarters. Prairie dogs once ranged throughout North America in the great grasslands east of the Rocky Mountains, and the Black-footed Ferrets lived among them.
As these areas were developed, farmed or ranched, the huge Prairie Dog towns were systematically wiped out in many areas because of the widespread, but mistaken, belief that the Prairie Dogs were detrimental to the health of the prairie, would compete for forage with livestock and that livestock might break legs in the Prairie Dogs' burrows. Actually, Prairie Dogs are a keystone species that are vital in maintaining the health of a Prairie landscape. They keep the soil aerated and healthy and prevent trees and shrubs from crowding out the grasses. As the Prairie Dogs disappeared, so did the Ferrets.
An additional factor in the decline of the Prairie Dogs and the Ferrets was introduced disease such as plague and canine distemper which wiped out whole colonies.
By the mid 1900's the Black-footed ferret was found only in small pockets in their former range, and although a captive breeding program was attempted in the 70's, it was unsuccessful, and it was assumed that the Ferrets were lost.
Then in 1981, a dog named Shep brought home to its ranch in Wyoming a small animal that was later identified as a Black-Footed Ferret. After surveying the area Biologist discovered small colonies of black-footed ferrets near Meteetse Wyoming. These small colonies were studied and observed in the wild, providing information about black-footed ferrets that would become vital for captive husbandry.
In 1985, USFWS developed a plan to capture wild ferret in hopes of beginning a captive breeding program. Just prior to implementing this plan disease hit the prairie dog colony, and subsequently the ferrets that fed on them. There was a scramble to capture as many ferrets as possible to begin a breeding program immediately. Eighteen ferrets were captured and they became the founder group that has produced over 7000 ferrets. Through the reintroduction program, it is estimated that over 1000 ferrets now exist in the wild.
Black-footed ferrets at the Phoenix Zoo:
The Phoenix Zoo became involved with the black footed ferret breeding and release program in 1991. We were only the fourth breeding facility at that time. At present, there are only six black-footed ferret breeding facilities in the world five of which are located in zoos, along with the breeding center headquarters, which is managed by USFWS and is located in Carr Colorado.
Phoenix Zoo has produced over 400 ferrets in the 20+ years that we have been involved with the black-footed ferret breeding program. For many of those years the ferrets we had a small breeding compound. In 2009, we began construction of a new 6200 square foot breeding center. In October 2010, we opened our new Black-footed ferret breeding center, thanks to generous support from the Arthur L "Bud" and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation. The new breeding center is located within the Conservation Center Complex. This new facility is equipped with a treatment room, a lab, and is capable of holding many more ferrets than our old facility.
Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to some illnesses common to humans, such as flu cold and flu viruses. For this reason, they are not exhibited and remain in a bio-secure environment. The Conservation Technicians who take care of the ferrets are required to wear masks and dedicated clothing when working within the ferret compound. Stress is also a potential threat, so maintaining the area off exhibit and in a quiet area is helpful for their general health, successful breeding and successful kit rearing.
How you can help:
You can help support our black-footed ferret breeding program by donating funds to the zoo's conservation program.
To be more hands on, the Arizona Game and Fish Department need volunteers twice each year in the Spring and Fall to help count black-footed ferret in the release site in the Aubrey Valley near Seligman. If you would like to participate in spotlighting send an email to AZferret@azgfd.gov This is a marvelous way to really get to know what goes into helping and maintaining an endangered species in the wild.
Volunteers at The Phoenix Zoo also help with interpretive opportunities at special events here on grounds, explaining to our guests how important the various pieces of the puzzle are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem – whether it's a prairie or a rainforest.
Where can I find more info:
Black-footed ferret recovery info