The Black-footed Ferret is one of North America’s most endangered mammals. Since 1900, the species’ survival has been threatened by a number of factors, including the steep decline of its main prey item, the Black-tailed Prairie Dog. Parks Canada and its partners are taking part in recovery efforts targeting the Black-footed Ferret.
The extirpation of a predator such as the Black-footed Ferret is a signal that the natural environment is not as healthy it used to be, since it can no longer support a species near the top of the ecological pyramid. This animal has “fallen off” the pyramid since the species below it can no longer support it; the more “stones” removed from the pyramid, the more fragile the system becomes.
The Black-footed Ferret is a mammal in the Mustelidae (weasel) family. It is long and sleek, low-slung and very agile. It has soft, shiny fur similar to that of a mink. The feet and tip of the tail are dark brown and there is a dark chocolate mask across the eyes and forehead. The rest of the body is mainly light brown and creamy white. Black-footed Ferrets are 50–61 cm long and weigh slightly over a kilogram, about the size of a small domestic cat.
The lifespan of this mammal is roughly 3–12 years. Females reach sexual maturity at one year of age, when they may give birth to a litter of 1–5 young. The gestation period is roughly one and a half months.
Solitary and nocturnal, this ferret is a carnivore and feeds almost exclusively on Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. In addition, it spends most of its time in the burrows dug by the prairie dogs, using them to raise its young and obtain shelter from the cold, heat and its predators.
Like the Black-tailed Prairie Dog, the Black-footed Ferret previously occupied a huge range from Western Canada to Mexico. In Canada, it occurred in mixed grass prairie in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Black-footed Ferret populations began to decline in the early 20th century, after the arrival of the European settlers in the region. The last wild specimen in Canada was seen in 1937.
For many years, scientists thought the species had become completely extinct but, in 1981, a small population was found near a ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming. Several ferrets from this population were trapped and a successful captive breeding program was begun. This gave rise to the hope that the species could be restored to its natural habitat one day.
In 1978, COSEWIC designated the Black-footed Ferret as a species extirpated from Canada.
In 2003, the Species at Risk Act was enacted in Canada. Under this law, a national recovery strategy for the Black-footed Ferret must be put in place by June 2007.
The main causes for the extirpation of the Black-footed Ferret from Canada are:
- Decline in prairie dog populations (due to habitat loss and efforts to eradicate the species, which is considered a pest)
- Fur trapping (particularly in the early 20th century)
- Poisoning by pesticides intended for prairie dogs
- New diseases brought over from Europe
The Black-footed Ferret used to be an integral part of the prairie ecosystem. Canada’s natural prairies are part of our national heritage. Re-establishing the Black-footed Ferret is an important step in restoring the ecological integrity of the Grasslands National Park ecosystem.
Specialists think that there is only one place in Canada where the ferret has a chance of survival: Grasslands National Park and the surrounding land in southern Saskatchewan.
Since the enactment of the Species at Risk Act in 2003, Parks Canada and its partners have undertaken the following actions:
- In 2004, a joint Black-footed Ferret/Black-tailed Prairie Dog Recovery Team was established. It has met several times to study various aspects of the situation.
- In 2005, Canadian, U.S. and Mexican specialists met in Calgary to exchange experiences and plan a recovery strategy.
The recovery team faces two main challenges, one biological and the other social:
- The biological challenge is to restore and maintain Black-tailed Prairie Dog populations healthy enough to support Black-footed Ferrets.
- The social challenge is to obtain broad support from neighbours of Grasslands
National Park, decision makers and the community at large.
Grasslands National Park alone likely does not have enough habitat to support a self-sustaining ferret population. This is why the support of landowners bordering the park is essential to re-establish the species in Canada. Even then, this reintroduced population may need supplemental reintroductions from time to time.
- Support the efforts of the Toronto and Calgary Zoos as they work towards the ferret’s reintroduction.
- Learn about the challenges of ranching and mixed-farming on the prairies and its role in prairie conservation.
- Support ranchers and farmers who sustainably utilize the prairie resource.