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Grasslands National Park

Black-footed Ferret

Frequently Asked Questions


Two ferrets
The black-footed ferret is the only native ferret known to North America
© Mike Lockhart / US Fish and Wildlife

What is a black-footed ferret?
The black-footed ferret is the only native ferret known to North America and is listed as one of North America's most endangered mammals. They prey almost exclusively upon prairie dogs and inhabit prairie dog burrows. These ferrets
can be identified by their black feet, face mask and tail.

Why did this species become extirpated from Canada?
The Canadian wild population of the black-footed ferret disappeared from Alberta and Saskatchewan in the early 20th century. Researchers are still unsure of the reasons for their dramatic decline but some of the contributing factors for extinction include habitat loss, prairie dog and ground squirrel poisoning, and drought. Many prairie species experience an increased population risk due to being at their most northern edge of their geographic distribution

How did the black-footed ferret begin the process of recovery?
The black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct until a small population was rediscovered in Wyoming in the 1980's. Between 1985 and 1987, 18 ferrets were brought into captivity for the purpose of setting up a captive breeding and reintroduction program to save the species. To date, 7,100 kits (young) have been born in captive-breeding facilities, with the majority being released into the wild at 17 sites in the western United States and one in Mexico.

How many black-footed ferrets are now in the wild?
There are now approximately 700 ferrets (as of fall 2012) in the wild in the USA and Mexico. This figure represents 20% of the numbers required to meet recovery plan goals. On October 2, 2009, there will be 35 ferrets released into Grasslands National Park of Canada. This will be the first of a series of annual releases.

Why is it important to release black-footed ferrets back into the wild prairie within Grasslands National Park (GNP)?
The overall black-footed ferret recovery goal is to re-establish sustainable populations of black-footed ferrets within their historical range. Releases have occurred in the U.S. and Mexico. The Black-footed ferret was once an integral part of the prairie dog habitat present in the West Block of Grasslands National Park. This habitat and the species within it are part of our national heritage. The return of this extirpated species is a source of pride to every Canadian.

Why is Grasslands National Park such a good release site for the black-footed ferrets in Canada?
In addition to offering prairie dog habitat, Grasslands National Park has the potential to be a managed release site. This exploratory re-introduction will involve frequent monitoring to allay threats and bolster the populations when necessary.

What is the current status of black-footed ferrets in Grasslands National Park?
In the fall of 2012, 3 new litters of wild born kits were discovered, as well as confirming a minimum of 12 individual ferrets.  A highlight was the discovery of a Canadian wild born ferret (born 2011), captured with her own litter of wild born kits in 2012! This second generation of wild born ferrets in Canada is another important benchmark in the recovery of the species.  In addition, there are still 3 ferrets from the original 2009 release, surviving and reproducing.  On average, ferrets only live for 3 years in the wild.

What happens after they are released?
After the ferrets are released into GNP and prairie dog towns, the ferrets disperse within their habitat. The population will require intense monitoring until the effects of ferrets on their ecosystem, and their survival rates can be understood. Monitoring will also be conducted to ensure that other species at risk populations are not adversely affected. Recovery of species at risk is a long-term commitment and will require multiple releases and monitoring efforts to ensure the greatest chance of success.

Where will the released ferrets come from?
The ferrets to be released will have been born at the Toronto Zoo and other participating Species Survival Plan (SSP) facilities. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Black-footed Ferret SSP is comprised of six breeding facilities: Toronto Zoo, The National Zoo/Conservation & Research Centre, Louisville Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Breeding Centre in Fort Collins, Colorado.

How are black-footed ferrets preconditioned for release?
Preconditioning significantly increases the chances for captive born black-footed ferrets to survive in the wild. Captive born ferrets are sent to a special boot camp at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Breeding Centre in Fort Collins, Colorado. Here they are taught how to co-exist with wild ferrets and to hunt prairie dogs.

What organizations and partners are involved in the reintroduction?
The organizations include the Government of Canada through Parks Canada, the Toronto Zoo which is the only captive breeding facility in Canada, the Calgary Zoo which is conducting extensive habitat research, the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation (PFRA) - Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Saskatchewan Environment, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the WWF US Northern Great Plains Program, Environment Canada and private stakeholders.

The black-footed ferret is the only native ferret known to North America.
One of North America's most endangered mammals
© Johane Janelle / Parks Canada

Black-footed Ferret Statistics:

Latin Name: Mustela nigripes

Description:

  • Black feet, face mask and tail tip.
  • Yellow-buff coat with a paler underside.
  • Nearly white forehead, muzzle and throat.

Size:

  • 28 - 50 cm in length head and body
  • tail length is 11 - 15 cm

Weight:

  • males are 950 - 1200 g
  • females are 750 - 950 g

Lifespan:

  • two to three years in the wild
  • five to seven years in captivity and sometimes up to 12 years

Reproduction and Development:

  • breeding occurs from late January until early June with higher success rates in March and April
  • gestation period of 42 - 45 days
  • one to seven young are born (average of three to four)
  • baby ferrets (kits) emerge from the burrow in early July
  • they are full grown by September / early October when they separate from their mother
  • males and females are mature at age one year

Adaptations:

  • sharp teeth and strong jaws for hunting prairie dogs
  • primarily nocturnal
  • rely on prairie dogs for their food and prairie dog burrows for their homes
  • have keen sense of smell, sight, and hearing
  • skillful climbers
  • use their sharp, non-retractable claws and powerful jaws for defense
  • males are territorial and secrete musk to mark their territory

Food:

  • Prairie Dogs - approximately 100 prairie dogs per ferret per year or one prairie dog every three days
Prairie Bandits.
Prairie Bandits
© Johane Janelle / Parks Canada