Back from the Brink – Little Known Prairie Species Rebounds

Black-footed ferret kit. Copyright Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian National Zoo.

Conservation stories are not hard to come by these days, but one that jumps out at me every time I see it involves efforts to save one of North America’s most endangered mammals, the black-footed ferret.   The ferrets once ranged through the plains of Canada, the U.S. and south into Mexico, but loss of habitat and the elimination of their primary source of food, the prairie dog, led to a catastrophic collapse of the population.

The ferret was believed to be extinct until a small population was discovered in Wyoming in 1981.  However, outbreaks of canine distemper and sylvatic plague nearly wiped out this population. The remaining 18 ferrets were taken into captivity between 1985 and 1987 in an effort to rescue the species – at the time perhaps the rarest mammal on the planet – from certain extinction.

This is where the story moves away from the all too common tale of a little-known animal going extinct and towards an account of a very successful partnership between wildlife agencies, private landowners and zoos that has brought the black-footed ferret back from brink.

The ferrets were taken to a breeding facility run by the Wyoming Game & Fish Dept. and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Sybille, Wyo.  The National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center is now in northeast Colorado and is run by the USFWS. The breeding program has expanded to include five breeding facilities in zoos across North America, including the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, Va.; Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Louisville Zoological Gardens, Louisville, Ky.; the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Ariz.; and the Toronto Zoo, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is also a past breeding facility.

Black-footed ferrets kits at the National Zoos Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va. Copyright Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian National Zoo.

The Black- footed Ferret Recovery Plan has a goal of establishing 500,000 acres of occupied ferret habitat as the key to removing federal endagered status.  This requires enrolling 1.5 million acres in the program in order to provide buffers that accomodate the expansion and contraction of prairie dog populations.

“To date, the recovery program has been relatively successful, establishing a population of about 1,000 animals in the wild in eight different states since 1991,” says Steve Olson, AZA’s vice president of federal relations. “To get the species down listed from endangered to threatened, we need to establish a self-sustaining population of about 1,500 animals.”

Releasing a black-footed ferret in the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. Copyright J.Michael Lockhart, USFWS.

Delisting the black-footed ferret altogether, which is the ultimate goal, would require a population of approximately 3,000 animals in the wild.  Achieving this goal requires building on the already successful partnerships that have brought this species back from the brink of extinction to include even more private land owners and Native Americans.  In Montana, for instance, the Lincoln Park Zoo, with help of an AZA Conservation Endowment Fund grant, is providing the Northern Cheyenne Reservation with support to insure the successful recovery of black-footed ferrets in the region.

“The only way for important conservation projects like this to work is through broad-based partnerships,” says Olson.  “No one group can pull together all the necessary resources and skills to pull it off – and that is where AZA accredited zoos excel with their long history of working with each other and our federal and community partners on a variety of conservation and education initiatives.”

2011 marks a special year in efforts to save the black-footed ferrets – it was thirty years ago that the species was rediscovered and twenty years since they were first reintroduced to the wild. The work to save this charismatic species from North America’s plains is ongoing – to learn more and see how AZA institutions are celebrating these conservation milestones, you can visit The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program.

Tim Lewthwaite

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