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The Mountain-Prairie Region

NEWS RELEASE

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

August 25, 1998

Mike Lockhart (307)721-8805
Pete Gober (605)224-8693, x24
Diane Katzenberger (303)236-7917, x408

BLACK-FOOTED FERRET REPRODUCTION BREAKS ALL RECORDS

This year promises to be the most successful year in the history of the black-footed ferret recovery program. Reproduction has far surpassed all previous years with 339 ferret kits surviving from a total of 452 born in captivity this spring. One hundred and seventy-seven ferret kits were born in captive breeding facilities located in six participating zoos (The Toronto Zoo, The Phoenix Zoo, Henry Doorly Zoo, Louisville Zoological Garden, National Zoo, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Park).

The largest contribution of ferrets born in captivity came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Laramie, Wyoming, where 249 kits were born and 191 survive to date.

Twenty-six of the total were born in Arizona in on-site pens. Some of the 18 surviving kits will be released directly from their birth pens into the wild. This is the first time that ferrets were produced in on-site pens at an existing reintroduction area.

In August 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allocated 217 ferret kits for placement at reintroduction sites and field breeding programs in South Dakota, Montana, Colorado-Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. One hundred and four ferret kits are to be kept for future captive breeding efforts.

Barring additional mortality, 94 kits (59 males and 35 females) will be moved to the Conata Basin/Badlands National Park reintroduction area in South Dakota. Seventy-seven ferrets will go to two separate release sites on a Montana experimental reintroduction area — 55 (35 males and 20 females) to the Fort Belknap Reservation and 22 kits (11 males and 11 females) to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana. In addition 29 kits (18 males and 11 females) are allocated to Arizona with some of those to be released and the remainder to be kept for on-site breeding efforts in 1999. Some of this year’s ferret kits will also be sent to two field breeding projects--a Colorado/Utah experimental reintroduction area will receive five males and five females, and seven kits (four males and three females) will go to a new on-site captive breeding facility that the Turner Endangered Species Fund has agreed to construct in New Mexico.

More ferrets were produced this year, in part, because of a discovery by the Conservation Research Center of the National Zoo in Front Royal, Virginia. Scientists found that many young male ferrets (around 1 year of age) appear sexually mature but do not produce viable sperm. When these males are paired with females, false pregnancies occur— a problem that has long plagued the captive breeding program.

All ferret kits reintroduced into the wild in 1998 will be preconditioned, a process of extended exposure to large outdoor pens that have prairie dog burrows and live prairie dog prey. Preconditioning has been found to significantly enhance the survival of young ferrets released in the wild. The construction of 24 on-site preconditioning pens, built by the Forest Service in 1997, allows all ferrets allocated to reintroduction sites to be preconditioned before they are released in the wild.

Early news about ferret reproduction in the wild this year is very encouraging. In South Dakota a minimum of 10 litters were observed, and seven in Montana. Litter sizes also appear to be larger than in past years. Although intensive litter surveys have not yet been initiated, it is estimated that 100 black-footed ferret kits from 30 litters could have been born in the wild in South Dakota and Montana in 1998.

Significant progress has been made toward black-footed ferret recovery since reintroduction efforts first began in 1991. The most formidable challenge now facing ferret recovery is whether suitable prairie dog habitat will be available to achieve the objectives of establishing enough multiple, viable populations of black-footed ferrets in the wild.

The black-footed ferret, a long, slender-bodied, black-masked mammal similar in size to a mink, was thought to be extinct until a ranch dog killed one near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981, leading to the discovery of a small nearby population. In 1987 disease ravaged the Meeteetse population and, as an emergency measure to save the species, all remaining wild 18 black-footed ferrets were captured and placed in captivity. Today, the black-footed ferret is still one of the most critically endangered mammals in North America.


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