Basic Facts About Black-Footed Ferrets
The endangered black-footed ferret is a member of the weasel family. It is the only ferret native to North America—the domestic ferret is a different species of European origin. Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but were brought 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.
Prairie dogs make up more than 90% of the black-footed ferret's diet. A ferret may 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 even smaller groups important for conservation of the ferret and other species that rely on ecosystems with prairie dogs.
Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but exotic diseases and widespread destruction of their habitat in the 1900s brought them to the brink of extinction. By 1986, only 18 remained. Today, the ferrets are making a comeback, with approximately 300 black-footed ferrets in the wild, and another 300 living in captive breeding facilities as of 2016.
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. As of 2016, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to 27 locations within their former range in eight U.S. states, Canada and Mexico.
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 prairie dogs.
Kits are born blind and helpless and stay below ground until they are about two months old. At this age, the female begins to take her young on hunting forays and separates the kits into different burrows. By October, 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.
Height: 6 inches
Length: 18-24 inches (including a 5-6 inch tail)
Weight: 1.5-2.5 lbs; males slightly larger than females
Lifespan: 3-4 years in the wild; 8-9 years in captivity