Black-footed Ferret

ZOO LOCATION: The Loft and Conservation Center

Lifespan: 3-9 years

Wild Diet: 95% prairie dogs; also mice and other small mammals

Zoo Diet: Prepared small carnivore diet, hamsters

Predators: Coyotes and birds of prey

SSP: yes

IUCN Status: Endangered

Habitat/Range: Great Plains of North America

Characteristics: Black-footed ferrets are 18-24 in. long from head to tail and weigh 1 1/2 - 2 1/2 lbs. Females weigh less than males and are about 10% shorter. These ferrets are generally buff color and pale on the under parts. Their forehead, muzzle and throat are nearly white. Dark colors create a mask on their faces; feet and tip of the tail are black. Their short front legs with large paws and claws are well developed for digging. Though they have large eyes and ears for the size of their body, their sense of smell is probably the strongest, helping them hunt for prey in dark, underground burrows.

Behavior: Black-footed ferrets are closely associated with prairie dogs, their streamlined bodies allowing them to use the prairie dog burrows for shelter and travel. Primarily nocturnal, they are also somewhat active shortly after sunrise. They spend most of their time underground in prairie dog burrows, typically spending only a few minutes above ground each day to hunt or find new burrows or mates. Black-footed ferrets are vocal. Loud chatters are used as alarm calls. Hissed agitation or fear and whimpering sounds by females encourage young to follow. Male ferrets often "chortle" to females during breeding.

Reproduction: Black-footed ferrets are solitary except during breeding season (March and April) or when females are caring for young. After a gestation of 41-44 days, a litter of 3-4 young is born. Only the female cares for the young. The young emerge from the burrow in 5-6 weeks and will leave the mother in September or early October. Kits are born blind and helpless, weighing only 5 to 9 grams at birth with thin, white hair covering their bodies. Their dark markings appear in about 3 weeks and young kits begin to open their eyes about 35 days after birth. Black-footed ferret kits develop very rapidly and become increasingly active after their eyes open. Young will venture above the ground for the first time in July and are fully independent and solitary by September. Both males and females are mature at one year of age.

Conservation: Endangered in 12 western states, including Colorado, since 1967. During the 20th century a dramatic decline in ferret populations occurred, associated with prairie dog extermination. Once thought to be extinct, a small group of ferrets was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. Another group was found in 1984 but most died shortly after discovery because of plague. The remaining few were rescued from certain death and were founders for the captive breeding program, in an effort to save one of the rarest mammals on Earth.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, one of only six breeding facilities in the world, works with government agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, Native American tribes and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to breed and reintroduce black-footed ferrets back into healthy prairie dog towns across North America. Since 1991, reintroduction sites have expanded from Wyoming to Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas and Mexico, although most are not self-sustaining.

In 1998 over 300 ferrets existed in the wild, the first time since the recovery program began that there were more ferrets in the wild than in captivity. In 2007, a ferret born at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was seen with her own litter in the wild in northwest Colorado. As of 2008, over 4,000 ferrets have been produced in captivity from only seven founders, over 800 of which exist in the wild today.

Black-footed ferret recovery still faces challenges. For wild ferrets to survive in the future, large areas of healthy prairie dog towns must be protected from poisoning and their habitat space protected from conversion. Less than 2% of this habitat remains today. State and federal politics, and a lack of adequate funding slow ferret recovery efforts, as does plague, which is fatal to both prairie dogs and ferrets. Studies are currently underway on a promising plague vaccine. By the year 2010 biologists hope to have 1,500 wild ferrets in at least 10 self-sustaining populations. If these goals are met, ferrets could be down listed from endangered to threatened. Learn more at the national website.