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Fragile Legacy

Endangered, Threatened & Rare Animals of South Dakota

Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes)

JPG--species photo species distribution map
Status: Federal Endangered

Description: The black footed ferret is a mink-sized member of the weasel family measuring 18 inches (46 cm) in length and weighing 2.5 pounds (1132 g). It has a black mask, black feet and a black-tipped tail. Its back and sides are tan or yellowish and its underside is white or cream colored.

Habitat and Habits: Black footed ferret habitat includes open areas of grasslands, steppe and shrub steppe (prairie dog habitat). Black-footed ferrets dwell in prairie dog towns, raise 2-5 young in prairie dog burrows and prey almost exclusively on prairie dogs. They are rarely observed anywhere but prairie dog towns.

Ferrets are secretive and nocturnal (active at night) and most commonly seen in late summer and early fall. Ferret tracks are practically identical to those of mink; however, the ferret's characteristic diggings consist of a long, narrow section of dirt directly out of a prairie dog burrow, often with a lengthwise furrow or trench. Prairie dogs may destroy this evidence within a few hours of sunrise. Besides trenching, another clue to ferret presence in a prairie dog town is evidence of plugged burrows. It is suspected that prairie dogs plug burrow entrances as a defense against roving ferrets.

Distribution: The black-footed ferret was formerly found throughout the Great Plains. Its distribution corresponded closely with ranges of various species of prairie dogs, in the Great Plains from the Canadian prairie provinces south to northern Mexico and west to the mountain basins of Utah and Arizona. Animals from the only known existing wild population in the vicinity of Meeteetse, Wyoming, have all been captured to become the nucleus of a successful captive breeding program. In South Dakota, the last promising sighting was in 1983 in Fall River County, although searching continues for wild black-footed ferrets in the state. Historically, black-footed ferrets have been documented from nearly all counties west of the Missouri River in South Dakota, and from the eastriver counties of Hughes, Hyde, Lake, Sully and Walworth.

Conservation Measures:South Dakota and the black-footed ferret are strongly linked in the minds of many. The ferret was feared extinct in the early 1960s, until a small population was discovered in 1964 in Mellette County. During the following decade, researchers learned much about this animal and attempted captive breeding at the Patuxent Research Center in Maryland. Propagation attempts were unsuccessful, and with the death of the last of the Mellette County ferrets, this species was again thought to be extinct. The ferret was formally listed as endangered in 1967.

In 1981, a ranch dog near Meeteetse, Wyoming, brought a weasel-like animal to its owner. The animal proved to be a black-footed ferret, leading to the discovery of a population that peaked at 129. Canine distemper, a disease to which ferrets are extremely susceptible, ravaged the Meeteetse population, prompting a decision to capture the remaining wild ferrets for another attempt at captive breeding. Veterinarians at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Sybille Wildlife Research Unit have successfully manipulated diet, lighting and other conditions to make captive breeding a success.

Several other cooperating facilities now also have captive ferret populations, helping to quickly expand the number of captive animals and move ferret recovery to the reintroduction phase.

Reintroduction goals, as outlined in the "Black-footed Ferret Recovery Plan" are, in short, to establish a wild, ferret population totalling 1500 animals distributed among 10 or more different sites. Cooperative efforts among states, federal agencies, Native American entities, private groups and landowners will be necessary to secure reintroduction sites and develop restoration strategies, hopefully leading to full recovery of a species that was nearly lost.

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