Zookeepers watch cameras through this window in Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's Conservation Center to monitor breeding and births.
The only ferret native to North America, the black-footed ferret once thrived across grass prairies from Canada to Mexico. Today, it’s one of the most endangered mammals in North America.
Our story begins with prairie dogs, the primary food source of ferrets. During the early 1900s, much of North American prairies were converted into farmland. Because prairie dogs were considered pests, they were poisoned. Around the same time, the accidental introduction of the bacterium that causes sylvatic plague, along with the loss of prairie dog habitat, led to the black-footed ferret’s drastic decline. The last black-footed ferret in Colorado was seen near Buena Vista in 1943, and by the 1950s, it was believed very few remained in the U.S. In the mid-1970s, biologists thought they were extinct.
On September 26, 1981, in Meeteetse, Wyoming, a rancher and his dog came across a wild ferret. This led biologists to the discovery of a new black-footed ferret population. Since the species is nocturnal and fossorial (meaning they live underground), very little was known about their natural history. Over the next four years, biologists gathered new information on the life and behavior of this elusive species. Unfortunately, in 1985, outbreaks of both sylvatic plague and canine distemper killed nearly the entire Meeteetse population. After six trapped black-footed ferrets died of canine distemper, the decision was made to bring additional animals into captivity. To safeguard the species, a total of 18 black-footed ferrets were trapped between 1985 and 1987. In 1986, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Wyoming Game and Fish, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums initiated a captive breeding program for the black-footed ferrets.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of only five zoos in the world breeding black-footed ferrets. Since 1990, we’ve produced 379 kits, and sent 187 black-footed ferrets to the USFWS’s National Black-Footed Ferret Breeding and Conservation Center in northern Colorado for preconditioning and release into the wild. Other participating zoos include Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia, Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, and Toronto Zoo in Canada.
We’re expecting this year’s first litter of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo kits soon. Be sure to check back for updates!
Because black-footed ferrets are susceptible to common diseases and don't tolerate noise very well, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's Conservation Center is closed to the public.