Worth Defending: Black-Footed Ferret

Black-Footed Ferret

Black-footed Ferret, © Joel Sartore

© Joel Sartore

Solitary andnocturnal, the black-footed ferret, with its characteristic black mask and black-tipped tail, rarely pops its head from underground, preferring to spend most of its time hunting and living in prairie dog burrows.

Members of the weasel family, black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands on prairie dog colonies across the Great Plains and valleys of the Mountain States—from southern Canada to northern Mexico.

But habitat destruction from plowing the land for crops, exotic diseases and widespread poisoning of its prairie dog prey almost caused North America’s only native ferret species to disappear for good.

In fact, biologists concluded that the species went extinct in the 1970s. That is, until Shep—a Wyoming rancher’s dog—deposited one on his owner’s porch one morning in 1981.

This last-known population of about 130 individuals suffered a disease outbreak soon after, prompting federal biologists to capture the 18 that survived for a captive-breeding program.

Today, this endangered species still faces an uncertain future from dwindling prairie dog habitat and persistent poisoning of prairie dogs so livestock can eat the grasses instead.

Yet thanks in part to a wayward dog, there is renewed hope that this masked mustelid will not be lost forever in the grasslands of time. 

More Articles from Fall 2013

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a truly landmark law that solidified our commitment to conserve our nation’s wildlife.
Bison gained rights to some of their old stomping grounds on the Great Plains when the Montana Supreme Court in June reversed a lower court ruling that had prevented their return.
Desert Tortoise, Photo: Justin Ennis / Flickr user Averain
Renewable power comes with many benefits. 
The catch is finding ways to make it “smart-from-the-start” when it involves wildlife habitat.
Despite their outsized place in pop culture, great white sharks remain poorly understood.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Mexican gray wolves roamed freely, their howls echoing through the southwest.
Having colorful little fish darting around a home aquarium appears harmless enough, but the hobby can also have hidden environmental costs upstream.
The waterways of the United States and other industrialized nations are awash with the miracles of modern living.
The prairie pothole region of the Great Plains is the most important and most embattled waterfowl habitat in North America, and it’s long had an ally in the United States Farm Bill—until recently.
America’s rich wildlife heritage exists today, thanks—in no small way—to the ESA.