Black-footed ferrets, or Mustela nigripes, are the only native ferret species in North America. They are one of the most endangered mammals on the continent. The ferrets are very playful, often wrestling and doing the ‘ferret dance’, where they hop backwards with their mouth open. They are slender small ferrets with a black mask, black feet, and a black-tipped tail. The rest of their body is a yellowish-white color. They have short legs, large front paws, and claws that are good at digging. They have large ears and eyes, but their best sense is smell. They are around 8 to 24 inches. Black-footed ferrets are very loud, using a loud chatter as an alarm call and a hiss to show alarm. One ferret may eat over 100 prairie dogs in a year. When they’re not eating prairie dogs, they eat mice, rats, rabbits, birds, and sometimes reptiles and insects. Ferrets have to eat a lot to move as they do, so one ferret eats about 1 prairie dog per 3 or 4 days. Black-footed ferrets are solitary animals. Ferrets live around 3-4 years. Black-footed ferrets hunt for prairie dogs by slipping into their burrows.
Why Are They Endangered
Black-footed ferrets were once thought extinct. Then, in 1981, an isolated population of black-footed ferrets was found. Eighteen of the ferrets were caught to establish a breeding colony, which means all black-footed ferrets are descended from them. Now there are about 370 left. Some reasons why black-footed ferrets are endangered are habitat loss and non-native diseases. Black-footed ferrets are very dependent on prairie dogs, so without space for prairie dogs and healthy prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets are in trouble. They once lived across the western plains, but now they’re reintroduced into Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona. In the 20th century, many farmers and ranchers, with government assistance, exterminated many prairie dogs because they would destroy their fields. The prairie dog towns would become ghost towns, significantly hurting the black-footed ferret populations to the point where people thought they were extinct. They have made a remarkable recovery, but they are still in danger.
Because black-footed ferrets depend a lot on prairie dogs, which depend on having a habitat and healthy grass, healthy ferret populations signify the health of the grasslands ecosystem. Diseases will sometimes hurt the populations of prairie dogs and thus the populations of black-footed ferrets, so the ferrets are a good way of measuring how the prairie ecosystem is doing. So, because the fate of the prairie dog affects the fate of the black-footed ferret, (90% of these ferret’s diet is prairie dogs), the ferret depends on the prairie dog and the ecosystem to survive. This is why the farmer’s exterminating of the prairie dog was so bad for the ferrets (and the prairie dogs.
What Can You Do?
You can raise money and donate to the World Wildlife Fund and Prairie Wildlife Research, which protects prairie creatures especially the black-footed ferret. You can raise awareness for what happened to these ferrets, and tell people about some efforts to help farmers find other solutions where they can still grow their crops without killing endangered species. Some organizations are giving farmers specially trained dogs to scare cheetahs away from livestock instead of the farmers having to shoot them. Below is a link to the Prairie Wildlife Research Donate page and more information on how dogs are helping cheetahs and farmers’ relationship
Sartore, Joel, editor. "Black-Footed Ferret." National Geographic, National Geographic Society, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/b/black-footed-ferret/. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.
"Black-footed Ferret." Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/black-footed-ferret. Accessed 22Apr. 2020.
"Black-footed Ferret." World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/species/black-footed-ferret. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.
*all pictures used with permission, and/or taken from the sites above.