Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Black-footed Ferret


There are three classifications for animal species in danger of becoming extinct.

  1. Endangered. Species require direct human protection for survival.
  2. Threatened. Species also referred to as vulnerable. They are abundant in some areas, but their numbers are decreasing or they face serious dangers.
  3. Rare. Species either have small populations within a narrow geographic area or are thinly scattered throughout a wider range.

Many factors contribute to an animal’s endangerment. These include but are not limited to the destruction of habitat, disease, and pollution, trade in animal products, overhunting, and the growing human population.

The Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) might have slipped into extinction without notice had it not been for John James Audubon and Reverend John Bachmman, who described a specimen they had found near the lower Platte River in Nebraska in Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America published in 1851.

The elusiveness of the Black-footed Ferret (BFF) and the fact that the original specimen disappeared sparked controversy over its existence. In 1874, Dr. Elliot Coues made a request for specimens through the American Sportsman magazine and received several specimens in response.

The BFF is an obligate carnivore meaning that they have one main food source and 90% of that is the prairie dog. Not only is the prairie dog the Black-footed ferret’s food it’s burrow provides the ferret with shelter and a home.

The Black-footed Ferret's territory started diminishing in the late 1800’s as farmers actively killed prairie dogs that competed with livestock for the grasslands. By the 1950’s, the BFFs were thought to occur in low density throughout most of their historical range.

historical BFF territory1

The U.S. Fish and Game Commission put the BFF on the endangered list in 1967. A small colony in South West South Dakota was found and was studied from 1964 until its disappearance in 1974.

Biologists feared that the BFFs had lost their fight with humankind and no longer existed. The BFF was placed on the extinct list in 1978.

Three years later in a North West Wyoming town, a rancher’s dog killed and brought home a strange animal that the owner had not seen before. He took it to the local taxidermist who identified it as a Black-footed Ferret and called the wildlife professionals.

A colony of 120 BFFs was found near Meeteetse, Wyoming and was studied. An outbreak of canine distemper killed all but 18 ferrets by 1985. The remaining BFFs were captured and taken to the Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Education Unit.

Seven of the captured ferrets reproduced in 1986 and all black-footed ferrets are related to those offspring. A recovery program was developed with the goal of getting the Black-footed Ferret off the endangered list and back into the wilds.

Reintroduction began in 1991 in Shirly Basin, Wyoming with 228 released over a four-year period. There are eight release sites in five states: Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, Montana, along with Mexico. blackfooted release areas

The recovery plan was to have a minimum of 1500 Black-footed ferrets back in the wild with 30 breeding pairs per site by the year 2010.

All Black-footed ferrets released into the wild carry a passive integrated transmitter (PIT) PIT inserted under the skin. This transmitter is like the chip we use for our pets. When located in the wild a transponder ring is placed around the prairie dog hole so that when the ferret pops his head up it will read the PIT and record the number. Any wild born BFFs are captured using a specialized trap and a PIT is inserted this takes approximately 30 minutes.

PIT is used in conjunction with geographic information systems (GIS). This is the process of taking information, like topographical maps, and over laying them. This helps to calculate or correlate things.

BFFs are fed prey (prairie dogs) to imprint on that food source. They are also preconditioned (i.e. BFF School) for 45 days in outdoor pens where they live in dirt burrows and learn how to kill prairie dogs before being released into the wild. This gives them a better chance of survival. The life span for a BFF in the wild is 2 years although there was one Old girl that made it long enough to have five litters.

The recovery goal is being hampered by the outbreak of Sylvatic plague, which is similar to the human black plague, and canine distemper in many of the release sites. BFFs are vaccinated against distemper before being released. In hope of controlling the Sylvatic plague, crews are dusting prairie dog town with a product called DeltaDust as a way to kill fleas and in the past, it has been effective in halting the plague. A vaccine has been developed by the U.S. Army and 216 BFFs have been vaccinated by November 2008. The recovery goal is being revised and the date maybe pushed back to 2020.

It is believed that they are a quarter of the way towards the goal, which is a lot more than the 18 BFFs rescued in 1985.

Thank you Travis M. Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research for the use of the PIT picture and for answering my questions.

Adopt a Black-footed Ferret

Travis Livieri's Blog

BFFs Facts:

Can travel 5-7 miles per hour

First release site was Shirly Basin, Wy

317 kits were born in captivity by June 28 2009

300 BFFs reside in zoos and breeding centers

An average family of four will consume appoxomitely 763 prairie dogs per year

Only one person knows the answer to this question. Is No. 005-041-115 still around or when was the last recorded appearance?


1 comment:

buzzd said...

I have never heard of a black footed ferret. This was interesting. They eat alot of prairie dogs each year.