The black-footed ferret’s storied recovery

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst

This week, the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) sent 26 black-footed ferrets into “boot camp” in Colorado to prepare the animals for life outside captivity.

A recent Associated Press article indicates that the ferrets will spend at least 30 days in the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado for “preconditioning” for the wild. The training involves exposing the ferrets to underground burrows and prairie dog tunnels (prairie dogs make up 91 percent of the ferrets’ food source).  Scientists say that training gives the ferrets a 10 times better chance of survival in the wild.

Black-footed ferrets are among the success stories of the Endangered Species Act. The animals were nearly driven to extinction due to fur trade harvest, habitat loss, prairie dog extermination and Sylvatic plague, a disease humans arriving in North America in the late 1800s brought with them. For the ferrets, the disease is the equivalent of the Black plague. These combined factors led to as few as 18 ferrets that remained in the wild in by 1985.

Several state zoos joined forces with the SCBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to breed the endangered animals in captivity. FWS developed its Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan, which focused on both natural and assisted breeding programs and the establishment of multiple reintroduction sites.

Since 1991, over 7,000 captive-bred ferrets have been released into prairie dog colonies. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild, with 19 reintroduction sites across North America and four self-sustaining populations in the states of Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Additional information on the black-footed ferret’s recovery can be found here or by visiting the FWS website.

Photo credit: FWS

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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