Ferrets are often misunderstood and under-appreciated. Strong, flexible, playful, and overwhelmingly adorable are just a few of ferret’s many great qualities. April 2nd is National Ferret Day. National Ferret Day seeks to celebrate these remarkable and resilient mustelids as well as raise awareness about the welfare, nutrition and care of ferrets. It is important to not only address the importance of domesticated ferrets, but also their close cousins. There are only three ferret species on Earth: the European polecat, the Siberian polecat, and the black-footed ferret.
The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America and is also one of the most endangered species in the continent. Black-footed ferrets are obligate carnivores (their body can only process meat). Their primary food source is prairie dogs.
In the mid 1900s, farmers and ranchers (with government assistance) eliminated many prairie dogs because their underground complexes are destructive to fields. With their primary food source being eliminated, the once thriving black-footed ferret population was wiped out and they were thought to be extinct. In the 1980s, the black-footed ferrets were rediscovered in Colorado. In 1987, 18 ferrets were captured in the wild to begin a captive breeding program where the last known male of their species impregnated the females. The captive breeding program has begun releasing the ferrets back into their Western North American habitats. Today it is estimated that there are only 370 black-footed ferrets left in the wild.
Like all animals, including those that are misunderstood and maligned, black-footed ferrets play a key role in their ecosystem. They primarily reside in the Great Planes, with 19 reestablished populations in Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Chihuahua and Saskatchewan. The Great Plains are home to more than 20,000 animal species. More than 100 of the 20,000 species are found only in the Great Plains (including black-footed ferret). Black-footed ferrets are key indicators of healthy ecosystems as they help manage prairie dog populations. They are important members of the ecosystem both as a food source for larger predators (like owls, coyotes, and badgers) and as a predator of prairie dogs and other small rodents.
With all of the progress being made toward improving the black-footed ferret population, there are still ongoing issues and threats. Prairie dogs are often viewed as pests, with many cities choosing to exterminate prairie dogs. An appropriate alternative could be either introducing prairie dogs to an area with a dense black-footed ferret population or, introducing black-footed ferrets to the overpopulated prairie dog areas. Many farmers and builders may not be aware of black-footed ferret habitats, since they live underground. Sadly, the human destruction of their habitats are common.
Black-footed ferrets are also extremely susceptible to fatality from contracting diseases. Unfortunately, prairie dogs are commonly known for carrying many diseases that are deadly to the ferrets. The warming climate has affected the prairie dog population in North America. Global warming affects the prairie dogs’ food availability, immunity, habitat location, and overall behavior. As a result, this too affects the food availability, immunity, habitat, and behavior of their predator, the black-footed ferret. With predictions of future increases in drought conditions in North America’s grassland ecosystems, there are more concerns for the outlook of prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.
How you can help the black-footed ferret
Stay informed and speak out
If you live in North America, stay informed on your local government’s policies on prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Contact your local senators and representatives to show your support for prairie dog and black-footed ferret recovery.
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Photo: National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center’s Facebook