Sep 28

Conservationists are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the rediscovery of the black-footed ferret, a rare mammal which was once thought to be extinct. 

Black-footed ferret photo

Black-footed ferret at burrow

Once thought to be the world’s rarest mammal, the black-footed ferret now numbers over 1,000 individuals thanks to concerted conservation efforts.

The black-footed ferret is native to North America, where its natural habitat is prairie grasslands. Destruction of this habitat for agricultural purposes and eradication of its main prey, the black-tailed prairie dog, led to the rapid decline of the black-footed ferret population in the first half of the 20th century. Diseases such as canine distemper and plague further exacerbated this decline.

By the 1970s, the black-footed ferret was believed to be extinct, until in 1981 a farmer’s dog in Meeteetse, Wyoming, brought back a dead ferret to its owners. This discovery sparked the creation of the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program.

Black-tailed prairie dog photo

Main prey of the black-footed ferret, the black-tailed prairie dog

30 years of conservation

Since its rediscovery, the black-footed ferret has been the focus of concerted conservation efforts by U.S. federal and state agencies in cooperation with private landowners, non-profit organizations and Native American tribes. Captive breeding efforts have since produced some 7,600 ferrets, with reintroductions back to the wild beginning in 1991. There are now a total of 19 reintroduction sites, with 150 to 250 individuals being released each year.

The main goal of the current black-footed ferret recovery plan is to have the species downlisted as an endangered species by 2020, and completely removed from the endangered list by 2040. The biggest threats to this recovery are now a lack of suitable reintroduction sites and disease, although an effective plague vaccine has now been developed.

Black-footed ferret photo

Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes)

Kristy Bly of WWF said this of the success, “With 2011 marking the 30th anniversary of the rediscovery of the black-footed ferret, we now have more reason than ever to celebrate. Through these relocation efforts, we have established approximately 5,600 acres of prairie dog colonies, creating nearly half of the area needed to restore a self-sustaining population of black-footed ferrets to Thunder Basin grasslands.”

For more information on black-footed ferret conservation, visit the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program.

Read more on the story in National Geographic’s article – Black-footed Ferret: The Comeback Kid Celebrates 30 Years of Rediscovery.

Read more on the story in WWF’s article – A Second Chance for Black-Footed Ferrets.

View images and footage of the black-footed ferret on ARKive.

Becky Moran, ARKive Species Text Author