By Carrie Flood
Black-footed ferrets. You know them. You love them. But did you know how close we came to losing them? Do you know why that’s important?
Black footed ferrets were considered extinct in the wild.
Luckily scientists were wrong both times. As usual, the animals knew better, and thanks to a ranch dog named Shep, who dropped a black-footed ferret on a doorstep in in 1981, the last population of about 100 wild ferrets was discovered outside Meeteetse, WY. Almost immediately after rediscovery the ferrets were in peril from plague and canine distemper (vaccinate your pets!) and when just 18 individuals remained, the decision was made to start a captive breeding population. Of the 18 last ferrets, just 7 were able to breed, so all of the black- footed ferrets alive today descended from those seven individuals.
Wild ferret populations declined when their main prey, the prairie dog, was persecuted. Dubbed pests by settlers, prairie dogs were shot outright by people who mistakenly thought they competed with cattle for grass, and those who were concerned about losing cattle to ankle injuries caused by prairie dog burrows. We now understand that prairie dogs are essential to maintaining a healthy grassland ecosystem, and their populations have begun to rebound.
Meanwhile, breeding programs for ferrets were set up in a USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service) center and in zoos, where staff had the expertise and experience to successfully breed them. (This is one of the benefits of having wildlife populations in managed care; knowledge gained has applications for wild populations.) The Phoenix Zoo was selected as a breeding site in 1991, and success followed shortly after. We are proud to be one of only six facilities in the world that breeds black-footed ferrets.
We work cooperatively with wildlife agencies and other zoos to produce enough ferrets to release while at the same time retaining maximum genetic diversity in the managed population and in the wild.
Ferrets selected for release must graduate “ferret boot camp,” where they learn and prove their survival skills, which include evading predators and killing live prey. From a low of NO ferrets in the wild, thanks to the cooperation of AZA zoos and government agencies such as the USFWS and AZ Game and Fish Department, there are now several hundred ferrets living in the wild in eight states, Mexico and Canada. Populations can fluctuate significantly due to disease, which is one reason why having sustainable populations in several areas is important.
Scientist don’t save species just for aesthetics. Ferrets weren’t saved for the joys of having wild ferrets, although once you see their beautiful faces, you could make that argument. We now understand that all animals – big and small – have a role to play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. We are also beginning to more fully understand how much humans depend on well-functioning ecosystems to survive. We are connected to all other living things, and when one species disappears, the effects spread like ripples on a pond. Each species of plant and animal plays a part in supporting the health of the human species. We’ve already lost so much: great auks, Caspian tigers, dodos, and so many more.
That’s why we conserve species. That’s why we invest in the future of animals like the black-footed ferret. It’s not because we love to see wild ferrets, (although we do); it’s because investing in black-footed ferrets is investing in our own future and that of our children. To learn more about our work with black-footed ferrets and other species native to Arizona, visit phoenixzoo.org/conservation/local-conservation. And visit https://www.phoenixzoo.org/animals/ferret-cam/ to check out our ferret cam!