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The black-footed ferret is a small carnivore considered one of the most endangered in North America. In fact, it was thought to be extinct twice. A small relict population was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981 and there began the amazing story of bringing a native species back from near extinction — first into a captive, managed breeding program and now back in the wild. Black-footed ferrets are 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 prairie dog burrows for shelter. Prairie dogs once ranged throughout North America in the great grasslands east of the Rocky Mountains and 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 prairie dogs were detrimental to the health of the prairie, would compete for forage with livestock and that livestock might break legs in prairie dog burrows. In reality, prairie dogs are a keystone species that are vital in maintaining the health of 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 black-footed ferrets.

An additional factor in the decline of prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets was introduced disease such as plague and canine distemper, which wiped out whole colonies. By the mid-1900s, the black-footed ferret was found only in small pockets in their former range and although a managed breeding program was attempted in the 1970s, it was unsuccessful and was assumed that the black-footed 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, biologists discovered small colonies of black-footed ferrets near Meeteetse. These colonies were studied and observed in the wild, providing information about black-footed ferrets that would become vital for managed, captive husbandry.

In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) developed a plan to capture wild ferrets in hopes of beginning a managed 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 black-footed ferrets as possible to begin a breeding program immediately. Eighteen were captured and they became the founder group that has produced over 7,000 black-footed ferrets! Through the reintroduction program, it is estimated that over 1,000 black-footed ferrets now exist in the wild.

How you can help:

You can help support our black-footed ferret breeding program by donating funds to The Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Conservation Center at the Phoenix Zoo.

To be more hands on, the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) need volunteers twice each year in the spring and fall to help count black-footed ferrets in the release site in Aubrey Valley near Seligman, Arizona. If you would like to participate in spotlighting, send an email to AZferret@azgfd.gov. This is a marvelous way to get to know what goes into helping and maintaining an endangered species in the wild.

Volunteers at the Zoo also help with interpretive opportunities at special events, explaining to guests how important the various pieces of the puzzle are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem — whether it’s a prairie or a rainforest.

Find more information on the black-footed ferret by visiting these sites:

Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program

USFWS Black-Footed Ferret Species Profile

AGFD Black-Footed Ferret Species Profile

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 six black-footed ferret breeding facilities in the world, five of which are located in zoos, along with the breeding center headquarters in Carr, Colorado.

The Phoenix Zoo has produced over 400 black-footed ferrets in the more than 20 years that we have been involved with the breeding program. For many of those years, we only had a small breeding area. In October 2010, we opened our new 6,200 square feet black-footed ferret breeding center, thanks to generous support from The Arthur L. & Elaine V. Johnson Foundation. The new breeding center is located within The Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Conservation Center at the Zoo. The facility is equipped with a treatment room, lab, prep and laundry rooms and is capable of holding 30 black-footed ferrets.

Bio-secure Environment

Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to certain illnesses common to humans, such as the flu. For this reason, they are not on exhibit and remain in a bio-secure environment. Conservation technicians who take care of the black-footed ferrets are required to wear masks and dedicated clothing when working within the 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.

Black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes
Size: Adult body length: 18 to 24” (with tail)
Tail length: 5 to 6”
Weight: 1.5–2 lbs

Range: Historically from Southern Canada to Mexico in North America. With the loss of 98 percent of prairie dog habitat, which black-footed ferrets depend upon, they neared total extinction in the 1980s. Intensive captive breeding programs have been working to save this species.

Since 1991, federal and state agencies, in cooperation with private landowners, conservation groups, Native Americans and the North American zoo community, have been actively reintroducing black-footed ferrets back into the wild. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have since expanded to sites in Montana, South Dakota and Arizona. Proposed reintroduction sites have been identified in Colorado and Utah.

Habitat: Black-footed ferrets can be found in the short or middle grass prairies and rolling hills of North America. Each animal needs about 100 – 120 acres of space upon which to forage for food. They live within the abandoned burrows of prairie dogs and use these complex underground tunnels for shelter and hunting.

Young: 1 – 6 kits

Gestation: 42 days. Black-footed ferrets exhibit a phenomenon known as “delayed implantation,” in which the fertilized egg does not start developing until conditions are appropriate for gestation.

Diet (wild): Black-footed ferrets rely primarily on prairie dogs for food. However, they sometimes eat mice, ground squirrels and other small animals. Normally, over 90 percent of a black-footed ferret’s diet consists of prairie dogs, which are hunted and killed within their burrows. A black-footed ferret typically consumes between 50 – 70 grams of meat per day. It has been observed that black-footed ferrets only kill enough to eat and caches of stored food are not usually found.

Life span: 2-3 years in the wild, 6 years in captivity

Status (common, threatened, endangered, etc.): Endangered – Considered to be the most endangered mammal in North America

Anatomy/Physiology (anything unique or interesting): The fur of black-footed ferrets is yellowish-buff with pale underparts. The forehead, muzzle and throat are white, while the feet are black. A black mask is observed around the eyes, which is well defined in young black-footed ferrets. Males are generally 10 percent larger than females.

Habits: Black-footed ferrets are active mostly during the night, with peak hours around dusk. They reduce their activity levels in the winter, sometimes remaining underground for up to a week. Black-footed ferrets are subterranean animals that utilize prairie dog burrows for travel and shelter. They are solitary animals, except during the breeding season. There is no male participation in rearing of their young. Black-footed ferrets are also territorial and will actively defend territories against other same-sex competitors. Black-footed ferrets are considered an alert, agile and curious mammal, and are known to exhibit keen senses of smell, sight and hearing. They rely on olfactory communication (urination, defecation) to maintain their dominance hierarchies and to aid in retracing tracks during night travel. Black-footed ferrets are vocal mammals that chatter and hiss in the wild when they have been scared or frightened.