Animal keepers at the National Zoo’s conservation center recently sent 26 black-footed ferrets to a critter boot camp to help the endangered species learn the necessary skills to survive in the wild.
Drawing upon 3 to 4 million years of evolution from weasel-like ancestors, the behavior and biology of the black-footed ferret gradually changed to suit its environment.
Its large skull and strong jaw and teeth are adapted for eating prairie dogs, which accounts for over 90% of its diet. Habitat destruction, poisoning, shooting, and the sylvatic plague fomented a steep decline in the prairie dog population, making it difficult for black-footed ferrets to survive. By the 1950’s, their habitat and primary food source were nearly non-existent; black-footed ferrets were thought by many to be extinct.
However, a small population of black-footed ferrets in South Dakota was rediscovered in 1964. Though biologists took this opportunity to pilot a captivity program, breeding efforts were unsuccessful. In 1979, the last known black-footed ferret died, and the species was once again considered to be extinct.
Acting as a pleasant surprise to the conservation community, black-footed ferrets were rediscovered in 1981 in Wyoming. With new hope and more knowledge, scientists and wildlife enthusiastic launched the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program.
As part of an ongoing effort that has fueled the recovery of a species twice declared extinct, Zoos in Louisville, Kentucky, Toronto, Phoenix, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo joined with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior to breed the endangered animals.
Scientists estimate that about 1,000 black-footed ferrets live in the wild today and expect that number to grow. Each year, 150-220 black-footed ferrets from the captive breeding population are preconditioned and later reintroduced into the wild.
Once exposed to natural burrow systems and given the opportunity to encounter live prairie dogs for at least 30 days, reintroduction candidates spend another 90 days training with their littermates. After a suite of vaccinations and many tearful goodbyes, the seasoned black-footed ferrets are released into 1 of 19 reintroduction sites scattered throughout Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Canada, Utah, Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.
Scientists and volunteers continue to monitor the black-footed ferret populations and educate the broader community on the importance of conservation.
Though an assortment of threats to recovery remains, including disease and a lack of suitable reintroduction sites, the 1988 recovery plan goal of reaching 1,500 breeding adults may soon bet met.
A revision to the recovery plan is underway and should be completed by the end of 2011.
Check out this wonderful photo slide show of black-footed ferrets in the recovery facilities.