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The Mountain-Prairie Region


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

August 27, 2001

Diane Katzenberger 303-236-7917, x408
Sharon Rose 303-236-7917, x415
Mike Lockhart 307-721-8805


Colorado will soon be home to the largest captive population of black-footed ferrets, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Today, officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Senator Wayne Allard, the Mayor of Fort Collins, and others from the National Wildlife Federation, Congressman Dan’s Shaffer’s office, and the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Foundation – who all helped make a dream into reality – broke ground for construction of the new $8 million National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center that will house the animals.

The heart of the conservation center, located along Interstate 25 in Fort Collins, Colorado, will be its captive breeding facility, part of the national black-footed ferret recovery program. Without a captive breeding program, black-footed ferrets would have become extinct in the late 1980s. The last known individuals in the wild were trapped in Wyoming and placed in captivity to save the species in 1986 and 1987.

The complex will include an indoor housing/breeding building, up to 100 outdoor breeding pens, ferret holding/shipping building, quarantine facility, manager’s residence, and a small maintenance shop. Construction will begin this fall, with the center ready to receive ferrets in outdoor pens within a year. Full build-out will continue through 2006.

The new National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center will replace a smaller center currently located in Sybille Canyon, Wyoming, and provide an expanded outdoor area more closely simulating natural conditions. Raising captive-bred ferrets using techniques that mimic their wild environment has proven critical to improving their survival rate after release.

"The conservation center, and the recovery program as a whole, represent what can be accomplished when government agencies and private organizations come together for the common purpose of protecting a species," said Ralph Morgenweck, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region. "The success of our black-footed ferret recovery program so far has truly been the result of this cooperative effort. All those involved should be applauded for their contributions."

Recovery of the black-footed ferret is supported by various cooperating agencies and organizations, including: Wyoming Game and Fish Department; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Division of Wildlife; National Wildlife Federation; American Zoo and Aquarium Association; Metropolitan Toronto Zoo; Louisville Zoological Gardens; Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the Phoenix Zoo; and the Conservation Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, part of the National Zoo.

Through years of trial and error in the captive-breeding program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners have raised and reintroduced black-footed ferrets into areas they once inhabited. Over 300 wild ferrets are now estimated to exist in southwestern South Dakota alone. Additional smaller populations exist in Montana, Colorado and Utah.

"The construction of this new center will help accelerate the recovery of this important member of the prairie ecosystem in North America, so hopefully it eventually will no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act," Morgenweck added.

National goals to recover the black-footed ferret and reclassify it from endangered to threatened call for the establishment of ten, viable, free-ranging populations of black-footed ferrets by the year 2010. The objective is at least 1,500 breeding adults in ten populations, scattered throughout the ferret’s historical range, consisting of no less than 30 breeding adults in any one population.

Between 1991 and 2000, about 1,350 ferrets were released into the wild. To date, the most successful reintroduction efforts have been in South Dakota where large, disease-free colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs remain. In the fall of 2001, black-footed ferrets will be released in northern Chihuahua, Mexico, in that country’s first ever reintroduction of an endangered species.

Reintroduction of black-footed ferrets into the wild began in 1991 with a release of ferrets in Shirley Basin in Wyoming. Additional releases of ferrets were initiated in 1994 at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana and the Conata Basin/Badlands area in South Dakota. Ferret reintroductions also occurred in the Aubrey Valley of northwest Arizona in 1996, on the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in 1997, in eastern Utah/western Colorado in 1999 and on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation of South Dakota in 2000.

The population at Conata Basin is actually larger than the last known wild ferret population at Meeteetse, Wyoming. Over 60 litters of wild-born ferrets and well over 150 kits were produced at the South Dakota site in the year 2000 alone (over 84 litters were produced at five reintroduction sites across the West in 2000). The Conata Basin reintroduction site is the only sizeable, apparently self-sustaining ferret population in the wild today and wild-born kits from the Conata Basin were transplanted to the Cheyenne River Sioux reintroduction area in 2000.

Black-footed ferrets were once a highly successful predator that occupied vast prairie regions throughout North American. The ferret became endangered over the last century as a result of the conversion of native prairie habitats into farm lands, prairie dog eradication programs and sylvatic plague, an introduced disease that decimates both ferrets and prairie dogs.

By 1979, the black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct. However, in 1981, a dog killed an unusual looking animal on a ranch in Wyoming. The rancher took the animal to a taxidermist who recognized it as a black-footed ferret, which soon led to the discovery of a small ferret population near Meeteetse, Wyoming. The population increased from 1981 through 1984; at its peak, nearly130 ferrets were counted. However, beginning in 1985, the Meeteetse population began to decline because of sylvatic plague and another disease, canine distemper.

In October 1985, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the last 18 wild black-footed ferrets to start a captive breeding population at the Department's Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Education Center near Wheatland, Wyoming (now operated by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and known as the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center).

Ferrets were once found throughout the Great Plains, from Texas to Saskatchewan, Canada. Their range extended from the Rocky Mountains east through the Dakotas and south through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Although their historical distribution is not fully understood, black-footed ferrets almost certainly existed wherever the three most common prairie dog species were found in North America. Black-footed ferrets feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs and live in their burrows.

Black-footed ferrets are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae). Other members of the family include martens, fishers, otters, wolverines, badgers, and skunks. Larger than weasels, black-footed ferrets are long, slender-bodied animals similar in size to a mink. They are characterized by a black mask across the face, black feet and legs, and a black-tipped tail. The ferrets' short, buff-colored fur becomes lighter on the underside of their bodies.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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