After 23 years of breeding endangered BFFs, black-footed ferrets born at CMZ are now living in the wild on privately-owned prairie lands of Colorado. Staff members from our Zoo, along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), released captive-bred black-footed ferrets (BFF) on the Walker Ranch near Pueblo at the end of October and beginning of November. In total, 55 BFFs were released at the ranch – five of those were born and raised at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo! This release was the first in Colorado on privately owned land and was made possible by new Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA).
“It took many dedicated organizations working together for this release to take place. A special thanks goes to Gary and Georgia Walker, who volunteered their land, for giving ferrets a chance to survive in the wild prairies of Colorado,” Dr. Della Garelle, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Director of Conservation and the Species Survival Plan Chair for the international black-footed ferret breeding team said. “We wish the black-footed ferrets well; go forth, eat prairie dogs and prosper!”
An off-exhibit breeding facility was built on grounds after the Zoo joined the Black-Footed Ferret recovery effort in 1990. Since the first BFF breeding season at the Zoo, 456 kits have been born and 227 ferrets have been released. In total, there have been 21 sites in 12 states where black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced since 1991, but only 4 of those are currently successful.
“Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal and live underground in prairie dog burrows, so it is difficult to determine their exact population, but they’ve gone from extinct in the wild to at least 500 now roaming prairie dog colonies,” Garelle said. “Our Zoo choose to participate in this breeding program because we are passionate about saving species from extinction – and what more appropriate animal for us to save than one that used to exist right here in Colorado.”
Black-footed ferrets are completely dependent on vast expanses of prairie dogs as primary prey, and use prairie dog burrows for shelter and raising their young in prairie dog dens. As prairie dog populations were decimated to less than 2% of their historical levels due to a non-native plague and land development, the black-footed ferret became critically endangered. In 1979, BFFs were thought to be extinct, until a ranch dog named Shep found one in the prairies Meeteetse, Wyoming and presented it to his owner.
Biologist studied this remnant population, but saw that it was declining rapidly. To safeguard the species and prevent their imminent extinction, the 18 last-known wild black-footed ferrets were rescued between 1985 and 1987. In 1986, USFWS, Wyoming Game and Fish, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums initiated an emergency captive-breeding program for black-footed ferrets. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of only six breeding facilities in the world participating in this program.
To learn more about black-footed ferrets, visit www.blackfootedferret.org, or stop into The Loft at the Zoo, and meet our retired breeding black-footed ferret.
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