Ghosts of the Prairie: The Reintroduction of the Black-footed Ferret

7/29/2016

Black-footed ferrets -- agile creatures with masked faces and droopy whiskers -- once roamed the prairies in 12 western states, stretching from Canada to Mexico. By the 1960s, their numbers had plummeted because of habitat loss, a decline in prey and plague. But with the help of a farm dog and years of recovery efforts, these nocturnal mammals have made their way back home.

Two tan and fuzzy black footed ferrets stand in short grass looking into the distance
A pair of young black-footed ferrets in the wild. Photo by Ryan Moehring, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This week the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered to reintroduce the species to the place where they were rediscovered after being believed to be extinct.

In 1981, a dog named Shep tussled with a weasel-like creature at the Hogg family’s ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Shep’s owners, John and Lucille Hogg, found the small creature’s carcass the next day and brought it to the town’s taxidermist, who correctly identified the animal as the thought-to-be extinct black-footed ferret.

Four members of the Hogg family stand on a stage with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials while holding a stuffed black footed ferret.
The Hogg family stands with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, holding their black-footed ferret mount at the reintroduction ceremony. Photo by Ryan Moehring, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

After an extensive search of the surrounding area, conservationists determined that the nearby Pitchfork ranch was sustaining the last remaining wild black-footed ferrets on the planet. At this time, the species was considered the rarest mammal in the world.

In an effort to save the species, these last ferrets were captured and placed in a captive breeding program, which has been highly successful in expanding the population.

A small, fuzzy black-footed ferret kit yawns at the camera.
Black-footed ferret kits raised as part of the captive breeding program. Photo by Kimberly Tamkun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the course of the next 35 years, 50 federal, state, Tribal, nonprofit and other local partners joined forces to enable the ferret’s recovery. These efforts have resulted in the successful reintroduction of the ferret at 28 sites across its historic range.

Perhaps the most meaningful and symbolic of these efforts occurred this week, when black-footed ferrets finally returned home to the ranch in Meeteetse, where they were rediscovered 35 years ago.

A black footed ferret emerges from a carrying case to be reintroduced to the wild in Wyoming.
A black-footed ferret is reintroduced in Wyoming. Photo by Ryan Moehring, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By the 1980’s, the black-footed ferret was nothing more than a memory -- a ghost of the prairie believed to have gone the way of the dodo. But what was once considered the last holdout of the black-footed ferret will now be the beginning of an anticipated stronghold. This reintroduction represents a triumph in endangered species conservation -- and another #wildlifewin.

Watch Ferret Cam for live video of the how we’re working to save the black-footed ferret.

Three black-footed ferrets peak up out of a hole in the ground.
Three black-footed ferrets in the wild. Photo by Kimberly Fraser, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

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