Species at Risk
What is 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
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.
The Black-footed Ferret’s natural predators
include birds of prey, coyotes,
Where are Black-footed Ferrets found?
The Black-footed Ferret raises its young in Black-tailed
Prairie Dog burrows. © Lockhart,
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.
© Parks Canada / E.LeBel / 08.81.03.21(103)
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.