U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228
March 24, 2009
Contacts: Sarah Bexell 970-222-4664
Sharon Rose 303-236-4580
First Endangered Black-footed Ferret Kits of 2009 Born
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced the first black-footed ferret kit births of 2009. This officially begins the highly anticipated annual whelping season. Together with our numerous partners, the Service is hopeful for many healthy kits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service houses two-thirds of the captive population, with five partner zoological institutions aiding in captive breeding efforts.
On March 24, two-year-old “Harp” gave birth after a gestation of 42 days. She and her kits will not be disturbed for several days, so her litter size is not yet known. She will rear her kits in the captive breeding building and if they are release candidates they will then be placed in pre-conditioning pens at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center* in Northeastern Colorado. Candidates spend at least 30 days in these pens with natural prairie dog burrows and have the chance to practice killing their preferred prey, prairie dogs. These experiences have been found to increase the likelihood that they will survive in the wild. Based on their genetic makeup and demonstrated survival skills, kits will be considered for reintroductions this fall at sites in the U.S., Mexico, and a potential new reintroduction site in Canada. Prior to release, all kits will receive physical examinations and vaccinations against plague and canine distemper.
The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered mammals in North America with only about 280 in existence in captivity and approximately 800 in the wild (as of fall, 2008). In the past, black-footed ferrets ranged widely wherever their prairie dog prey existed in the mid North American continent from Canada to Mexico. Ferrets depend on prairie dogs as their main source of food, and for their burrows as shelter. Prairie dogs, and ferrets by extension, have declined over the past century or more due to the loss of their prairie habitat to farmland, poisoning of prairie dogs to limit competition with domestic livestock, and the inadvertent introduction of a non native disease, sylvatic plague, into North America in the early 1900s.
Black-footed ferrets were listed as an endangered species in 1967. By the mid-1970s, wildlife biologists thought they were extinct. In 1981, the discovery of a few individuals on a ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming, offered a ray of hope. However, in 1985 outbreaks of canine distemper and sylvatic plague killed nearly all the Meeteetse population. To save the species, the last 18 ferrets were captured and moved to a captive breeding facility. As of the fall of 2008, 6,500 ferret kits have been born in captivity and since 1991, over 2,300 have been reintroduced at 18 sites in the U.S. and Mexico.
For over a quarter of a century, hundreds of biologists and partners have worked to help black-footed ferrets escape extinction and reestablish populations in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with its many partners in state and federal agencies, Tribes, conservation organizations, private landowners, and zoos anticipate whelping season each spring in hopes that there will be many ferret kits available for reintroduction into the wild each fall. Each individual that is born provides more optimism that this species will survive. Wildlife reintroduction is a fledgling science and typically used by biologists to establish populations in efforts to save a species from extinction. Reintroduced ferrets face predators, having to secure their own food, disease, and sometimes, human pressures that originally caused their decline. As with many other species, habitat conservation constraints remain the fundamental obstacle to the recovery of the species.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
*The National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center is not open to the public due to disease and disturbance concerns. Thank you for your interest.