Black-Footed Ferrets: Returning From the Brink of Extinction

Burbank, CA (May 15, 2007) — In a very remote prairie in Northern Colorado, a small, elusive species of animal is making a comeback from the brink of extinction.

After a twist of fate 25 years ago when a dog discovered one lone ferret, the black-footed ferret recovery effort has become one of the most successful conservation programs conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in recent history.

Today the Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado has produced more than 5,500 ferrets while in captivity. The center’s staff and the animals they are caring for are the subjects of The Futures Channel’s latest micro-documentary released on its website today.

“This story about biologists’ efforts to rescue the endangered black-footed ferret is inspirational,” said Della Garelle, the Black-footed Ferret Species Survival Plan Coordinator at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. “It’s a real life (and death) application of several scientific principles in order to save an important species right in America’s backyard.”

In the movie, the biologists at the facility follow a sequence of stages aimed at returning the animals to their natural habitat. “Our main task is to manage black-footed ferrets in captivity, prepare them for reintroduction and release them back into the wild,” explains wildlife biologist Paul Marinari, who shows the breeding facilities and preconditioning pens.

One of the most critical elements of the conservation program is breeding healthy ferret offspring or “kits.” The breeding rooms are quarantined environments because ferrets are very susceptible to diseases, including human influenza. Each room is filled with a series of tubes and cages that simulate the burrow and tunnel systems that ferrets use in the wild. It is here that the animals develop and learn to adapt to a life underground.

Once they’re old enough, the young, naïve black-footed ferret kits are transferred to the outdoor “preconditioning” facility that simulates what it will be like for them to live out on the prairie. “One of the most exciting things that we do here is prepare the animals for release,” explained Marinari in the documentary. “They get to experience rain and dirt and wind and all the nighttime sounds in the North American prairie.” The micro-documentary, which features Marinari, shows two kits being released for the first time.

In the five-minute movie, Marinari explains how the cause of the near extinction of the black-footed ferret exemplifies the critical interdependence of life. In the wild, black-footed ferrets’ diet consists, almost exclusively, of prairie dogs. In the early part of the 20th Century, there was a concerted effort in the West to poison prairie dogs, as they were considered to be pests by farmers. When the prairie dog population began to drop, the black-footed ferrets were nearly wiped out. As a result, these ferrets native to North America were added to the endangered species list.

What was started by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has become a collaboration of many federal, state and private organizations including the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center has become a model for captive breeding and, ultimately, effectively saving an endangered species.

“It kind of makes you feel good to think that someday black-footed ferrets will be roaming the prairie,” said Marinari.

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