An important win for black-footed ferret reintroduction


Once a thriving predator on prairie landscapes, the black-footed ferret was squeezed out of its range by agriculture and development, and their populations ravaged by diseases like sylvatic plague, which was introduced from Asia at the turn of the 20th century. Ferrets’ main source of food, prairie dogs, have long been considered pests to agriculture on the plains, and thus dramatically reduced in numbers through sanctioned poisoning and killing. As HCN’s Cally Carswell wrote in 2011, “as the prairie dog goes, so goes the black-footed ferret.” By 1979, the ferrets were considered extinct.

A black-footed ferret peers out from a prairie dog hole.

But in 1981, a dog in Wyoming brought home a surprising gift, revealing a small population, which scientists began collecting for captive breeding. By 1987, the last wild ferret was captured, bringing the remaining population to 18 individuals. Since then, more than 7,000 kits have been born in six captive breeding centers across North America. Yet efforts to rebuild the wild populations have been stymied by several factors, including diseases like plague and canine distemper, as well as lack of suitable habitat. Earlier this fall, two legislative changes broke down barriers to new habitat possibilities, boosting the ferrets' chance for success.

The first change occurred at the federal level, with the passage of a “safe harbor” agreement that would help drum up support from private landowners who might otherwise fear the liabilities that come with having an endangered species on their property. Many landowners are wary of endangered species protections because if they damage habitat for a protected species, they could face prosecution.  Safe harbor agreements allow landowners to participate in reintroduction efforts without worrying about that caveat.

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