04 October 2009

Back to Canada!

Black-footed Ferret (Mustela Nigripes), Endangered

The Black-footed Ferret is being reintroduced to Canada! Thirty-four endangered ferrets were released into Saskatchewan's Grassland National Park on Friday. They were released near a colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, their main prey, as well as their architects, since the Ferrets live in abandoned Prairie Dog burrows.

All of the Ferrets released had a few things in common. They all were born in captivity, and therefore had to spend some time in a special facility in Colorado, where they learned which predators to fear, and how to hunt and survive in the wild. They also all have a small electronic chip implanted under their skin, which will help conservationists keep track of and study them.

For each of the next few years, 30-40 Black-footed Ferrets will be released into the park, with the eventual aim of having wild populations across North America. Conservationists warn, however, that time is still a long ways off. Although Black-footed Ferrets have been reintroduced to 19 sites across North America, only three of these are self-sustaining. The rest require new captive-bred ferrets each year to maintain their populations.

The only ferret native to North America, it looks like a cross between a raccoon and a weasel, with distinctive dark markings across its face and feet. It disappeared from north of the 49th Parallel around 1937 and was thought to have gone extinct across its range throughout Mexico and the United States sometime in the 1970s. Then came 1981, and a tiny population of 18 Black-footed ferrets was discovered in Wyoming. They were trapped, and taken into captivity, effectively making the species extinct in the wild.

With those original 18 animals though, a successful captive breeding program was begun, and Black-footed Ferrets have been reintroduced to the prairies of the United States and Mexico since 1991. The current wild population stands at around 750, with 250 more still in captivity.

The reason for the Black-footed Ferrets decline in the 20th century was tied to its main source of food--Prairie Dogs. As farmers and ranchers cultivated the land, they tended to see the Prairie Dogs as pests and a hindrance to agriculture. This view led to widespread poisoning and trapping, and huge reductions in population size, which were exacerbated by outbreaks of sylvatic plague. They continue to be threatened by the extreme fragmentation of their primary habitat, which has been occupied by humans for food production and living space.

You can learn more at the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program.

Or you can adopt one. As the adoption website notes: This is a sponsorship program. You will NOT receive a black-footed ferret.

See if there's a zoo near you that has Black-footed Ferrets on display.

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