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November 8, 2012

Saving the Black-Footed Ferret from Extinction

Last Friday, five staff members from our Zoo, along with Turner Endangered Species Fund and United States Fish and Wildlife Service, released 25 captive-bred black-footed ferrets to the Vermejo Park Ranch near Raton, New Mexico. This might not seem like very exciting news if you find yourself picturing your friend’s domesticated ferret, and wondering why they are classified as endangered, but black-footed ferrets are very different from the ferret you are picturing!

Black-footed ferrets are the only ferret native to North America (the more commonly thought-of domestic ferret is actually native to Europe). Our expert opinion is that they are the cutest of the ferret species, but trust us, you wouldn’t want them living in your home. Ninety percent of their diet consists of prairie dogs, which they expertly kill!

Now that we have your attention, let’s bring you up to speed about the black-footed ferret’s struggles with extinction and how our Zoo is helping save the species…

In 1979, the black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct. In 1981, a cattle dog named Shep found one in the prairie land of Meeteetse, Wyoming and presented it to his owner – which led to the exciting discovery of a living black-footed ferret population. Over the next four years, biologists gathered new information about the life of the elusive ferret.

The black-footed ferret is nocturnal and fossorial, meaning they live underground. As we mentioned before they rely on prairie dogs as primary prey, and use prairie dog burrows for shelter and nesting. As prairie dog populations were diminishing due to a non-native plague and land development for farming and ranching, as well as an outbreak of canine distemper, the black-footed ferret became critically endangered.

To safeguard the species, the 18 last-known black-footed ferrets were trapped between 1985 and 1987. Our Zoo made the decision to join the Black-Footed Ferret’s Species Survival Plan effort in 1990. A breeding facility was built on Zoo grounds, and although it is not visible to the public, this breeding facility had 30 ferret kits born this year - an astonishing number when you consider it is nearly double the number originally trapped in the 80s. A total of 413 kits have been born at the Zoo’s facility since 1991.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Director of Conservation and Species Survival Plan Chair for the international black-footed ferret breeding team, Dr. Della Garelle, is excited about the future of the species. “Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal, so it is difficult to gauge their exact population,” Garelle said. “However, thanks to captive-breeding efforts by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and only five other institutions, their population has gone from nearly extinct to at least 1,000 in the wild.”

Dr. Garelle led our Zoo’s team in the release efforts last Friday at the Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico. She was excited to report back after the release that each member of the Zoo’s staff was able to place a black-footed ferret into a prairie dog hole on the property. Once all 25 ferrets were placed, they were given time to settle into their new home. Staff returned to the release site after dark to check on them. Using spotlights, they noticed some native swift foxes checking out their new neighbors, and overall, the release was viewed as a huge success. To date, 200 black-footed ferrets have been released to the Vermejo Park Ranch, which is private land owned by Ted Turner.

To learn more about the black-footed ferret species survival plan, visit: www.blackfootedferret.org, or stop into The Loft, and meet our educational black-footed ferret named Spring. 

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