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Wildlife Wednesday: Black-Footed Ferret

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Wildlife Wednesday: Black-Footed Ferret

This Wildlife Wednesday is all about the secret struggle of the black-footed ferret, which is fighting its way back from near extinction.

Who’s that furry face behind the mask? It’s the black-footed ferret! You probably won’t recognize these cuties as they are one of the most endangered mammals in North America, with roughly only 1,000 in existence in the wild. This Wildlife Wednesday, we look at how these furry bandits are clawing their way back from the brink of extinction.

Habitat

Black-footed ferrets are native to North America’s prairie lands, the Northern Great Plains. Much of this area has been turned into farmland, which is a key factor in the ferrets’ struggle to survive.

Trivia

  • Black-footed ferrets eat, sleep, and live prairie dogs, which make up 90 percent of their diet. The ferrets even build their homes and raise their young in prairie dog burrows. 
  • They are able to hunt prairie dogs (which are sometimes as big as black-footed ferrets) on account of their highly evolved tools. Their non-retractable claws, sharp teeth, and strong jaws make them specialized predators.
  • There are only three species of ferret in the world, and the black-footed ferret is the only one native to North America.
  • Ferret babies are called kits. They are normally part of a litter of three to four, born in May or June.
  • They are characterized from their other ferret cousins by the signature black feet, tip of the tail, and bandit mask across the eyes.
  • These sneaky critters are mainly nocturnal, but can occasionally be glimpsed in the early morning or late in the afternoon.

Why are they threatened?

Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to modern diseases such as the plague, canine distemper, and even human forms of influenza. In spite of this, the main cause of their demise is that the prairie lands these ferrets call home have been slowly but surely turned into farmland.  As a result of the incoming human population, prairie dogs—a widely regarded pest—were subject to extermination, which in turn led to the almost-extinction of black-footed ferrets in the late 1970s.

The first captive breeding program for the black-footed ferret was launched in 1985 by the Wyoming Game and Fish department. There are now six institutions helping to breed black-footed ferrets in captivity and reintroduce them to the wild. They have had the most success in the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming, where populations are slowly increasing.

Photo credit: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

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