Black Footed Ferret
© Michael Lockhart/USFWS

Black-Footed Ferret

Basic Facts

The endangered black-footed ferret is the only ferret native to North America—the domestic ferret is a different species of European origin. Black-footed ferrets, a member of the weasel family, once numbered in the tens of thousands, but were driven to the brink of extinction by the 1960s. Although still endangered, they are starting to make a comeback, and Defenders of Wildlife is pleased to be helping achieve this remarkable wildlife success story.

The black-footed ferret has a tan body with black legs and feet, a black tip on the tail and a black mask. The ferret has short legs with large front paws and claws developed for digging. Its large skull and strong jaw and teeth are adapted for eating meat.

Diet

Prairie dogs make up more than 90 percent of the black-footed ferret's diet. A ferret can eat more than 100 prairie dogs in one year. Black-footed ferrets are also known to eat ground squirrels, small rodents, rabbits and birds.

A healthy population of black-footed ferrets requires very large groups of prairie dog colonies. Scientists estimate that a healthy population of ferrets requires more than 10,000 acres of prairie dogs to survive long term. Very few clusters of prairie dogs of this magnitude remain today, which makes conservation of these and smaller prairie dog colony groups, essential for the recovery of ferrets and other species that rely on these ecosystems.

Population

Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but exotic diseases and widespread destruction of their habitat in the 1900s drove them to the brink of extinction. By 1986, only 18 remained – all in captivity. Today, the ferrets are slowly making a comeback, with wild populations numbering in the hundreds. Populations are still highly variable because of the species’ dependence on prairie dog populations.

Range & Habitat

Black-footed ferrets once lived on black-tailed prairie dog colonies across the Great Plains, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and on white-tailed and Gunnison’s prairie dog colonies across the Intermountain West. By 1986, they were completely gone from the wild and a mere 18 were left in captivity. As of 2016, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced in multiple locations within their former range in several U.S. states, Canada and Mexico.

Behavior

Black-footed ferrets spend about 90 percent of their time underground, where they eat, sleep and raise their young in prairie dog burrows. They are nocturnal, and leave their burrows at night to hunt. They are solitary creatures except during breeding season.

Reproduction

Prairie dog colonies have been reduced to less than 5% of the area they originally occupied. In addition to habitat loss, humans pose a great threat to prairie dogs, which they often consider vermin. Prairie dogs are lost to poisoning and shooting by those wishing to eradicate them from their land. Sylvatic plague – an exotic disease to which prairie dogs have no known immunity – has also decimated these animals. The remaining colonies of prairie dogs today are relatively small and fragmented, often separated by great distances. Without sustainable populations of their main food source, black-footed ferrets cannot survive.

As an official member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) black-footed ferret recovery implementation team, Defenders of Wildlife works with governments, non-profits and private landowners to maintain and expand recovery sites for Black-footed ferret young, called kits, are born blind and helpless and stay below ground until they are about two months old. At two months old, the female begins to take her young on hunting forays and separates the kits into different burrows. By around five or six months old, the young are completely independent and will disperse to their own territories. 

Mating Season: March-April
Gestation: 41-43 days. Kits are born in May-June.
Litter size: 3-4 kits average; ranges from 1-7 kits.