Black-footed Ferret Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a black-footed ferret?

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is a member of the weasel family Mustelidae and a close relative of mink, badgers and otters. The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America.

 


What do black-footed ferrets eat?

Black-footed ferrets are carnivores (meat-eaters) and only eat prairie dogs (Cynomys species).  Prairie dogs are rodents that live in aggregations called towns or colonies. A typical prairie dog is as large as or larger than a black-footed ferret, but a ferret will attack a prairie dog below ground at night when the prairie dog is sleeping. The ferret places a bite on the neck of the prairie dog to suffocate it. Black-footed ferrets eat all parts of the prairie dog and have sharp teeth that can easily shear through the prairie dog bones (carnassial teeth).


What eats black-footed ferrets?

Black-footed ferrets in the wild are susceptible to becoming prey themselves.  Common predators of ferrets include coyotes (Canis latrans), badgers (Taxidea taxus) and great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Other predators can include bobcats (Lynx rufus) and hawks and eagles.


Where do black-footed ferrets live?

Black-footed ferrets live only on prairie dog towns in the Great Plains (Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming and portions of Canada and Mexico). Black-footed ferrets live in the burrows of prairie dogs, sometimes of prairie dogs they have eaten. Ferrets are relatively poor diggers and do not dig their own burrows. Prairie dog burrows can be as much as 15 feet deep and 60 feet long and sometimes connect with other burrows.


Why are black-footed ferrets endangered?

Black-footed ferrets require prairie dogs for food and shelter. Since the early 1900's humans have eradicated prairie dogs and destroyed prairie dog habitat. Ranchers perceive the prairie dog as a competitor for the grass that their cattle eat and thus have poisoned prairie dogs with harmful chemicals that sometimes killed other animals. Also, many prairie dog towns have been plowed over for crop fields or destroyed for human development. Diseases, such as sylvatic plague, have also been a factor in reducing prairie dog populations. Some scientists have estimated we have lost as much as 98% of the prairie dog habitat that once existed. As human encroachment and other factors reduced the populations of prairie dogs, thus ferret populations were reduced. Only 18 black-footed ferrets existed in 1987, making it one of the most endangered animals in the world.


How many black-footed ferrets are there?

In 1987 there were only 18 black-footed ferrets left. Captive breeding was successful and produced enough young (kits) that they could be placed into other zoos for breeding and reintroductions back into the wild. Approximately 300 black-footed ferrets reside in zoos and breeding centers throughout North America and another 500 black-footed ferrets survive in the wild at sites in the US, Mexico and Canada. One of the largest populations of wild black-footed ferrets is at the Conata Basin, on US Forest Service lands in South Dakota.


Can I own a black-footed ferret?

Black-footed ferrets are an endangered species and different than ferrets kept as pets. It is against the law to possess an endangered species without a permit.


What is the difference between a black-footed ferret and a pet ferret?

Black-footed ferrets are the only ferret species native to North America and are a different species than ferrets kept as pets, which are actually European ferrets. The two species are closely related along with the Siberian polecat which lives in northern China and Mongolia. Black-footed ferrets physically differ from pet ferrets mostly in their fur. Black-footed ferrets always have black feet, face mask and tail tip with a creamy/buff colored body. The fur on a black-footed ferret is shorter than that of pet ferrets, thus they look less fuzzy.


I think I saw a black-footed ferret in the wild, where do I report it?

Other animals are often mistaken for black-footed ferrets such as mink, weasels (such as a long-tail weasel in the photo to the right) and ground squirrels. While it is highly unlikely that any black-footed ferrets exist in the wild outside of reintroduction areas, it is not outside the realm of possibility that an undiscovered black-footed ferret population exists. If you see an animal that you believe is a black-footed ferret there are several questions you can ask yourself to help determine if it was a black-footed ferret:
    *      Did it have black feet, face mask and tail tip?
    *      Was the body a creamy/buff color?
    *      Is the area within the historic range of black-footed ferrets (i.e. Great Plains states)?
    *      Did you see it near a prairie dog town?
    *      What time of day did you see it? Ferrets are normally active at night, very rarely during the day.
    *      What other species could it have been?
If you answer these questions and still believe it was a black-footed ferret, then the next step is to report it to the local authorities. Start with the game warden/conservation officer for the area, the local game and fish agency or US Fish and Wildlife Service office.


What diseases do black-footed ferrets get?

Black-footed ferrets are highly susceptible to canine distemper and sylvatic plague.


What is being done to recover black-footed ferrets?

By 1987 there were only 18 black-footed ferrets left in the world. Those last 18 animals were brought into captivity to start a successful breeding program. Black-footed ferrets are currently bred at Louisville Zoo, Toronto Zoo, The Phoenix Zoo, Smithsonian’s Conservation & Research Center, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center.

Approximately 200 black-footed ferret kits from captivity are released into the wild each year. Currently there are 19 sites that have released black-footed ferrets Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico (Chihuahua) and Canada (Saskatchewan). Many agencies and organizations are involved in black-footed ferret recovery.


If you have suggestions for more FAQs, please email your question to: info@prairiewildlife.org