Black-footed ferrets – a most endangered species

UTAH — According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the black-footed ferret “is the only ferret species native to the Americas.” While the black-footed ferret population was estimated to be up to 1 million in the late 1800s, it was presumed to be extinct in the late 1950s.

Rediscovering pockets of black-footed ferrets

A small population of ferrets was discovered in South Dakota in 1964. Captive breeding efforts with this population failed and this wild population died out in 1974. In 1981 ferrets were discovered in Wyoming. This launched the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program.

Black-footed ferret. Photo: Courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Reintroducing the black-footed ferret into Utah

Black-footed ferrets are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The reintroduction of this medium-sized carnivore into Utah started in 1999. The black-footed ferret belongs to the mustelid family. This family of mammals includes weasels, badgers, martens, mink and otters, among others. Black-footed ferrets eat almost exclusively prairie dogs. Any disease in the prairie dog population affects the black-footed ferrets. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) is a member of the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT), which was created in 1996. According to the UDWR, “The ferret population tracks the prairie dog population and plague epizootics will make both populations crash. Black-footed ferrets only have a life span of 3-4 years.”

Black-footed ferret captive breeding program

The National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center was established in 2001 near Fort Collins, Colorado. There are now additional captive breeding facilities in Colorado, Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and Ontario, Canada. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s Vernal Field Office recently posted images of a black-footed ferret release.

Current status of the black-footed ferret

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources stated: “In the last ten years, we have released 190 ferrets (including the 12 released in 2023).  Since the first release in 1999, we have released 517 ferrets. These have been released in Coyote Basin, Snake John Reef, Bohemian Basin, and Walker Hollow prairie dog complexes (none of these are on Forest Service administered lands). The current population would be estimated at less than 10 ferrets in Coyote Basin and Snake John Reef.”

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