Landscape-Scale Collaboration Helps Black-Footed Ferret Bounce Back
Black-footed ferret. Credit: Ryan Hagerty / USFWS
The black-footed ferret is considered one of the most endangered mammals in the United States. Its historic range spanned much of the western North America’s intermountain and prairie grasslands extending from Canada to Mexico. Once thought to be extinct, they were rediscovered in 1981 in Northwest Wyoming. These last remaining 18 ferrets became the genesis of the captive breeding program and gave hope that the species could be saved from extinction.
Given the ferret’s dependence on prairie dogs as food and their burrows for shelter, black-footed ferrets are entirely vulnerable to prairie dog habitat loss. European settlement across the North American prairie dramatically altered the landscape through plowing and prairie dog eradication efforts. As their habitat and primary food source diminished, so did the black-footed ferret. Additionally, an invasive disease, sylvatic plague, is lethal to black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs.
Since 1991, state and federal agencies, Native American tribes, private landowners, non-profit organizations, and the North American zoo community have reintroduced thousands of black-footed ferrets into the wild. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have expanded to eight states, as well as Canada and Mexico.
Because ongoing recovery efforts encompass a broad landscape, the black-footed ferret has been identified as a possible surrogate species representing the prairie ecosystem. Surrogate species are species that are used to represent other species or aspects of the environment. Protecting and conserving the prairie landscape for the black-footed ferret will benefit many other species endemic to western grasslands and the sage-steppe including eagles and other raptors, mountain plovers , burrowing owls, three species of prairie dogs, and the more than 100 species that live in close association with prairie dog communities.
The current Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team includes partners from 12 state agencies, Canada, Mexico, six Tribes, eight federal agencies, six zoos and seven non-governmental organizations. Different subsets of these partners are actively involved in different states and for different reintroduction sites.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Strategic Habitat Conservation approach relies on an adaptive management framework and shared conservation goals. The Recovery Implementation Team, involving a broad conservation community, has been applying SHC principles to restore the black-footed ferret population.
Recovery of the black-footed ferret is attainable, but there are still many obstacles to overcome. As the Service continues working with our partners to address the needs of the black-footed ferret, we will also be conserving many other prairie populations of fish, wildlife and plants.USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region