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Species at Risk

Black-footed Ferret

Mustela nigripes

What is the Black-footed Ferret?

Species at Risk - Who Knew?

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.

The Black-footed Ferret’s natural predators include birds of prey, coyotes, badgers and lynx.

Where are Black-footed Ferrets found?

Three young Black-footed Ferrets poking their heads out of a burrow entrance.
The Black-footed Ferret raises its young in Black-tailed Prairie Dog burrows.
© Lockhart, M./2005

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.

Short-grass prairie landscape
Short-grass prairie.
© Parks Canada / E.LeBel / / 2005

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.