The Precarious Journey Of Black-Footed Ferrets

An endangered native of North America, black-footed ferrets struggle to retake their place on the prairie.

On the dark, nearly moonless night of September 26, 1981, near the town of Meeteetse, Wyoming, a ranch dog named Shep, owned by John and Lucille Hogg, killed a black-footed ferret. The Hoggs curiously took the dead ferret into town to a taxidermist who identified it, leading to the “re-discovery” of the black-footed ferret and making worldwide news.

As a 10-year-old boy in Wisconsin, I was oblivious to this momentous event and how it would eventually affect my life. I didn’t even know what a black-footed ferret was until 1995 when I was lucky enough to stumble into a job working with this endangered species. By the fall of 1995, I was enamored with black-footed ferrets and began to delve into the rich history of this charismatic species.

First Documentation Of Black-Footed Ferrets
But 1981 was not the first time a dead black-footed ferret made the news. In 1843, John James Audubon, the famous naturalist, and Reverend John Bachman ventured west to document and paint animals for their upcoming book Quadrupeds of North America. They put the call out for specimens to document, including those never before described. A trapper named Alexander Culbertson sent along a black-footed ferret specimen, captured near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to the duo. Audubon painted the animal while Bachman described the natural history as best as he could. The book, published in 1851, is the first documented account of a black-footed ferret.

Naturalist E.T. Seton summarized the knowledge of black-footed ferrets up until 1929 and made a prediction that would come true, “Now that the big Demon of Commerce has declared war on the Prairie-dog, that merry little simpleton of the Plains must go…and with the passing of the Prairie-dog, the Ferret, too, will pass.” It was obvious then that wide-scale poisoning and destruction of prairie dogs would drive the black-footed ferret to extinction, but no actions were taken to prevent it. Ferrets were treated as a bit of a curiosity for the next 30 years until biologists in South Dakota made a concerted effort to study the species.

Black-Footed Ferrets Disappear
A black-footed ferret was sighted on August 7, 1964, in Mellette County, South Dakota, on a private ranch by biologist William Pullins and the rancher’s son, Richard Adrian. Black-footed ferret sightings were not unusual in the 1960s, but this time biologists decided to initiate the very first study of black-footed ferrets in the wild.

During the next 10 years, several biologists and graduate students spent night and day making detailed observations of black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs. They talked of making a refuge or reserve for black-footed ferrets, but the plans did not get very far. Nine ferrets were captured and five survived for captive breeding to propagate the species, but ultimately none survived. By 1974 there were no ferrets left in Mellette County and sighting reports across the West kept biologists chasing ghosts across the prairies at night. The last captive ferret died in 1979. At that point, the black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct by many. It appeared that Seton’s 1929 prediction had come true.

Black-Footed Ferrets Return
Then came Shep and the Hoggs, sparking a revival and a second chance to save black-footed ferrets at Meeteetse. Enthusiastic biologists diligently studied the species, sleeping in tents on the Wyoming prairie in winter, working day and night to monitor radio signals from transmitters attached to black-footed ferrets, estimating prairie dog populations and studying the habitat. It must have been sweet redemption and vindication for a few who had spent much of the 1970s scouring prairie dog colonies across the West looking for black-footed ferrets without success.

The joy of re-discovery and a second chance became somber in 1985 when the Meeteetse black-footed ferret population began to crash due to plague and canine distemper. The remaining black-footed ferrets were captured and brought into captivity. There was enormous pressure on the biologists to successfully breed the black-footed ferrets but mating the ferrets didn’t go well.

Seventeen black-footed ferrets were captured by February of 1987, but the breeding inexperience of the young males in captivity seemed poised to doom the species and fulfill Seton’s 1929 prophecy again. One biologist likened the desperate situation of captive breeding to watching the very last Passenger Pigeon die in a zoo, signaling the extinction of that species.

This time black-footed ferrets were saved by a live specimen rather than a dead one. The 18th and last black-footed ferret at Meeteetse was a wily, old male that had eluded capture. When biologists finally determined his location, it took several nights to trap him. He was finally caught on March 1, 1987. His grizzled appearance earned him the name Scarface, and he was immediately brought into captivity. Scarface successfully bred with several black-footed ferret females in 1987, and two litters with seven surviving kits were born that year. Captive breeding took off from there.

Reintroducing Black-Footed Ferrets To The Wild
By 1991 enough black-footed ferret kits were produced in captivity that reintroductions back into the wild began, starting at Shirley Basin, Wyoming. Charles M. Russell/UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge and Badlands National Park in South Dakota were the second and third reintroduction sites to receive black-footed ferrets in 1994.

I was hired at Badlands in 1995 as part of a crew to follow up on those black-footed ferrets and determine if any had reproduced. In the early morning hours of August 10, 1995, we discovered two litters of black-footed ferret kits. We were elated at finding the first litters born in South Dakota since the 1970s. At the time I barely understood that our discovery was made possible by the hard work and dedication of many biologists over the past 30 years. Over time I would come to meet many of those folks who laid the foundation for black-footed ferret recovery and see the fire in their eyes and hear the passion in their voice for black-footed ferrets.

Today the black-footed ferret recovery program is stronger than ever with 275 captive animals maintained at five zoos and one federal breeding facility. Black-footed ferrets have been released at 19 locations in eight U.S. states, Mexico and Canada. An estimated 1,000 black-footed ferrets survive in the wild. All of this progress is due to the incredible efforts of biologists, zookeepers, administrators, private landowners, agencies, organizations, tribes, universities, foundations, individuals and many more.

I believe that within my lifetime we will recover black-footed ferrets and remove them from the endangered species list. With all due respect to E. T. Seton and his 1929 prediction that “the Ferret, too, will pass,” we are going to prove him wrong.

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Critters · Ferrets