The world wouldn’t be the same without BFFs. But we’re not talking about “best friends forever”. We’re talking about black-footed ferrets—a key indicator species in prairie ecosystems across the United States and one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the ferret’s rediscovery. The celebration is a chance to reflect on their amazing success story and the importance of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—our nation’s landmark wildlife conservation law. Without the ESA, we might not have any BFFs at all, not to mention bald eagles, gray wolves, or many of the treasured species that have been preserved and restored under its protection.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
Like many endangered species, ferrets have lost significant territory to agricultural development. Black-footed ferrets are one of three remaining ferret species in the world and the only wild ferret species that lives in North America. They can grow up to 2-feet long and weigh more than 2.5 pounds. Although they appear similar, domestic ferrets (found in pet stores) are members of a separate species from Europe.
As settlers moved west in North America, they began to reshape the lands inhabited by black-footed ferrets. With the invention of the plow, native prairieland was converted into farmland. Prairie dogs (which make up about 90 percent of black-footed ferrets’ diets) were reduced to about two percent of their historic population due to poisoning by farmers who considered them a nuisance. With their major food source becoming scarce, the future for the black-footed ferret seemed increasingly hopeless. In 1967 they were listed as an endangered species. Still, faced with persistent habitat loss and new diseases including sylvatic plague, black-footed ferret populations continued to dwindle. In 1979 when the last remaining captive ferret died at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, the black-footed ferret was declared extinct.
However, in 1981 a small population of the black-footed ferret was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming. Dedicated conservationists jumped on the opportunity to help the species survive and recover. Seven of the captured ferrets successfully reared young, and, through captive breeding and reintroduction, 19 populations have been reestablished in Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Chihuahua and Saskatchewan.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 750 ferrets now live in the wild (half of the population goal outlined in the 1988 Black-footed Ferret Recovery Plan).
WHAT GOOD ARE THEY?
The success of the ferret is good news for the prairie. The Great Plains are home to more than 20,000 animal species including more than 100 that are found nowhere else in the world like the black-footed ferret. The ferrets are key indicators of healthy ecosystems as they help manage prairie dog populations. The ferrets themselves are a food source for larger predators like owls, coyote and badgers. They are important members of the ecosystem both as predators and prey on the prairie.
Today, black-footed ferrets continue on the road to recovery, but the journey is far from over. These animals once numbered in the tens of thousands and now number only a few hundred. Even the laws that helped save the ferrets face challenges.
Government agencies and conservation groups, in cooperation with private landowners and communities helped restore the small predators to their rightful habitat under the protection and guidance of the ESA. Unfortunately, there are new legislative proposals to undercut current endangered species protections and prevent protection of imperiled species in the future.
It will take continuous efforts to help the black-footed ferret achieve long term sustainability and even more resolve to help other species reach similar success through an Endangered Species Act that has itself been threatened.