What We Do: Reintroduction, monitoring and translocation

Black-footed ferrets were extinct in the wild by the late 1980’s and only 18 individuals remained at a captive breeding center. Successful reproduction in captivity produced enough young black-footed ferrets, called “kits,” for reintroduction back into the wild. Since 1991 more than 4,500 black-footed ferrets have been released into prairie dog colonies across North America. Releases have occurred on federal, state, tribal and private lands and included many partners. Prairie Wildlife Research is a key partner at several sites, using our knowledge and years of experience to give released black-footed ferrets the best chance to survive.

Black-footed ferrets are listed as endangered across North America and the goal of recovery is to remove them from the list. Currently the black-footed ferret recovery plan calls for 1,500 breeding adults in the wild to be down-listed to threatened status and 3,000 adults in the wild to be de-listed completely. Monitoring of wild populations is essential to know how close we are to reaching those goals. Currently there are an estimated 300 adult black-footed ferrets in the wild thus we are one-fifth of the way to our first goal. Prairie Wildlife Research leads and organizes the annual monitoring surveys for black-footed ferrets in Conata Basin/Badlands, South Dakota, one of the largest and most important recovery sites to date. We also provide assistance to other recovery sites in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico and Canada.

Our primary method to monitor black-footed ferret population is spotlighting. Have you ever seen a deer in your vehicle headlights at night? We use high-powered spotlights to search for the emerald green eyeshine of black-footed ferrets as they peek above ground at night. You will only find ferrets in prairie dog colonies because that is almost their entire diet. Once a ferret is found we will set a live trap and try to capture the animal and anesthetize it for a veterinary check-up. This includes implanting a microchip, drawing blood and giving the ferret vaccinations to protect them against deadly diseases. This procedure takes as little as 20 minutes and the ferret is then released at the prairie dog burrow it was captured in. In 2015 we monitored and protected more than 100 black-footed ferrets in Conata Basin/Badlands alone!

In addition to spotlighting we have also used radio-telemetry, placing a small collar with a transmitter on the animal and tracking it with antennas. This method is labor-intensive but produces the best data on survival, movements and sources of mortality. When the snow conditions are perfect we also can track ferrets by the paw prints they leave in the snow. Whatever method is needed, Prairie Wildlife Research is there to find the ferrets, help and train others to find them, and produce quality scientific data to recover the species.

One of the goals for black-footed ferret recovery is to establish viable, self-sustaining populations and then move wild animals to new sites. We have data demonstrating wild-born black-footed ferrets survive better than ferrets from captivity and every year several sites request wild-born ferrets from Conata Basin, South Dakota. Prairie Wildlife Research works closely with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other reintroduction partners to translocate wild-born ferrets from Conata Basin to new sites. In the past 15 years we have provided ferrets to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, New Mexico and other sites in South Dakota.

What We Do: Research

Research is such an important part of wildlife conservation and endangered species recovery that we decided to incorporate it into our name, Prairie Wildlife Research.  In order to conserve a species like the black-footed ferret we must truly understand it.  We collaborate with many partners on research projects ranging from genetics to survival to stress and more.  Below are some of our research publications. Please feel free to contact us with any questions about our research.

Research publications by PWR and collaborators:

Eads, D. A., D. E. Biggins, S. M. Grassel, T. M. Livieri and D. S. Licht. 2016. Interactions among American badgers, black-footed ferrets, and prairie dogs in the grasslands of western North America. Pages 193-218 in G. Proulx, E. Do Linh San, editors. Badgers of the world: systematics, ecology, behaviour and conservation. Alpha Wildlife Research and Management, Alberta, Canada.

Eads, D. A., D. E. Biggins, and T. M. Livieri. 2015. Spatial and temporal use of a prairie dog colony by coyotes and rabbits: potential indirect effects on endangered black-footed ferrets. Journal of Zoology 296:146-152.

T. M. Livieri, B. L. Muenchau, D. E. Roddy, and D. S. Licht. 2015. Wind Cave National Park black-footed ferret reintroduction – 5-year review. Natural Resource Report NPS/WICA/NRR—2015/916. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Eads, D. A., D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri and J. J. Millspaugh. 2014. Space use, resource selection and territoriality of black-footed ferrets: implications for reserve design. Wildlife Biology 20:27-36.

Harris, N. C., T. M. Livieri and R. R. Dunn. 2014. Ectoparasites in black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) from the largest reintroduced population of the Conata Basin, South Dakota, USA. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 50:340-343.

Shoemaker, K. T., R. C. Lacy, M. L. Verant, B. W. Brook, T. M. Livieri, P. S. Miller, D. A. Fordham and H. R. Akcakaya. 2014. Effects of prey metapopulation structure on the viability of black-footed ferrets in plague-impacted landscapes: a metamodelling approach. Journal of Applied Ecology

Eads, D. A., D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri and J. J. Millspaugh. 2013. American badgers selectively excavate burrows in areas used by black-footed ferrets: implications for predator avoidance. Journal of Mammalogy 94:1364-1370.

Livieri, T. M., D. S. Licht, B. J. Moynahan and P. D. McMillan. 2013. Prairie dog aboveground aggressive behaviors towards black-footed ferrets. American Midland Naturalist 169:420-423. Videos can be seen here.

Livieri, T. M. and E. M. Anderson. 2012. Black-footed ferret home ranges in Conata Basin, South Dakota. Western North American Naturalist 72:196-205.

Santymire, R. M., S. M. Wisely, T. M. Livieri and J. Howard.  2012. A rapid method of age determination in the black-footed ferret. Small Carnivore Conservation 46:17-21.

Eads, D. A., D. E. Biggins, D. Marsh, J. J. Millspaugh and T. M. Livieri. 2012. Black-footed ferret digging activity in summer. Western North American Naturalist 72:140-147.

Eads, D. A., D. S. Jachowski, D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri, M. R. Matchett and J. J. Millspaugh. 2012. Resource selection models are useful in predicting fine-scale distributions of black-footed ferrets in prairie dog colonies. Western North American Naturalist 72: 206-215.

Livieri, T. M.  2011.  Black-footed ferret recovery in North America.  Pages 157-164 in . S. Soorae, editor.  Global re-introduction perspectives: 2011.  Additional case studies from around the globe.  IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. [PDF]

Poessel, S. A., D. E. Biggins, R. M. Santymire, T. M. Livieri, K. R. Crooks and L.Angeloni.  2011.  Environmental enrichment affects adrenocortical stress responses in the endangered black-footed ferret.  General and Comparative Endocrinology 172:526-533. [PDF]

Biggins, D. E., T. M. Livieri and S. W. Breck.  2011.  Interface between black-footed ferret research and operational conservation.  Journal of Mammalogy 92:699-704.[PDF]

Biggins, D. E., J. L. Godbey, B. M. Horton and T. M. Livieri.  2011.  Movements and survival of black-footed ferrets associated with an experimental translocation in South Dakota.  Journal of Mammalogy 92:742-750. [PDF]

Cain, C. M., T. M. Livieri and B. J. Swanson.  2011.  Genetic evaluation of a reintroduced population of black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes).  Journal of Mammalogy 92:751-759.  [PDF]

Poessel, S. A., S. W. Breck, D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri, K. R. Crooks and L. Angeloni.  2011.  Landscape features influence postrelease predation on endangered black-footed ferrets.  Journal of Mammalogy 92:732-741.  [PDF]

Jachowski, D. S., J. J. Millspaugh, D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri, M. R. Matchett and C.D. Rittenhouse.  2011.  Resource selection by black-footed ferrets in South Dakota and Montana.  Natural Areas Journal 31:218-225.  [PDF]

Eads, D. A., J. J. Millspaugh, D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri and D. S. Jachowski. 2011.  Post-breeding resource selection by adult black-footed ferrets in the Conata Basin, South Dakota.  Journal of Mammalogy 92:760-770.  [PDF]

Eads, D. A., J. G. Chipault, D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri and J. J. Millspaugh.  2010.  Nighttime aboveground movements by prairie dogs on colonies inhabited by black-footed ferrets.  Western North American Naturalist 70:261-265.  [PDF]

Eads, D. A., D. E. Biggins, D. S. Jachowski, T. M. Livieri, J. J. Millspaugh and M. Forsberg.  2010.  Morning ambush attacks by black-footed ferrets on emerging prairie dogs.  Ethology Ecology & Evolution 22:345-352.  [PDF]

Jachowski, D. S., J. J. Millspaugh, D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri and M. R. Matchett. 2010.  Home-range size and spatial organization of black-footed ferrets Mustela nigripes in South Dakota, USA.  Wildlife Biology 16:66-76.  [PDF]

Wisely, S. M., R. M. Santymire, T. M. Livieri, S. A. Mueting and J. Howard.  2008.  Genotypic and phenotypic consequences of reintroduction history in the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes).  Conservation Genetics 9:389-399.  [PDF]

Livieri, T. M.  2007.  Black-footed ferret spatial use of prairie dog colonies in South Dakota. M. S. Thesis, University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, 72pp.  [PDF]

Livieri, T. M.  2006.  Ten-year history of the Conata Basin black-footed ferret population: 1996-2005.  Prairie Wildlife Research, Wall, South Dakota.  49pp.

Biggins, D. E., J. L. Godbey, T. M. Livieri, M. R. Matchett, and B. Bibles.  2006.  Postrelease movements and survival of adult and young black-footed ferrets. Pages 191-200 in J. E. Roelle, B. J. Miller, J. L. Godbey, and D. E. Biggins, editors.  Recovery of the black-footed ferret – progress and continuing challenges.U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5293.  [PDF]

Biggins, D. E., J. L. Godbey, M. R. Matchett, L. R. Hanebury, T. M. Livieri, and P. E. Marinari.  2006.  Monitoring black-footed ferrets during reestablishment of free-ranging populations: discussion of alternative methods and recommended minimum standards.  Pages 155-174 in J. E. Roelle, B. J. Miller, J. L. Godbey, and D. E. Biggins, editors.  Recovery of the black-footed ferret – progress and continuing challenges.  U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5293.  [PDF]

Biggins, D. E., J. L. Godbey, M. R. Matchett and T. M. Livieri.  2006.  Habitat preferences and intraspecific competition in black-footed ferrets.  Pages 129-140 in J. E. Roelle, B. J. Miller, J. L. Godbey, and D. E. Biggins, editors.  Recovery of the black-footed ferret – progress and continuing challenges.  U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5293.  [PDF]

Breck, S. W., D. E. Biggins, T. M. Livieri, M. R. Matchett and V. Kopcso.  2006.  Does predator management enhance survival of reintroduced black-footed ferrets?  Pages 203-209 in J. E. Roelle, B. J. Miller, J. L. Godbey, and D. E. Biggins, editors.  Recovery of the black-footed ferret – progress and continuing challenges. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5293.  [PDF]

Wisely, S. M., R. M. Santymire, T. M. Livieri, P. E. Marinari, J. S. Kreeger, D. E. Wildt and J. Howard.  2005.  Environment influences morphology and development for in situ and ex situ populations of the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes).Animal Conservation 8: 321-328.  [PDF]

Other publication resources:

Roelle, J. E., B. J. Miller, J. L. Godbey, and D. E. Biggins, editors. 2006. Recovery of the black-footed ferret – progress and continuing challenges. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5293. [PDF]

Clark, T. W. 1989. Conservation biology of the black-footed ferret. Wildlife Preservation Trust Special Scientific Report No. 3. [PDF]

Wood, S. L. 1986. The black-footed ferret. Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs No. 8. [PDF]

Henderson, F. R., P. F. Springer, and R. Adrian. 1969. The black-footed ferret in South Dakota. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Technical Bulletin No. 4. 37 p. [PDF]

What We Do: Outreach

Our staff at PrairieWildlife Research are experts and we are more than willing to share our knowledge with others.  We have given presentations and spoken at schools (K-12), universities, conferences, symposiums, public gatherings and private functions.  We are available to present programs about:

  • Black-footed ferret history, biology and recovery efforts
  • The prairie dog ecosystem, including other prairie species
  • Effects of plague on black-footed ferrets and the prairie dog ecosystem
  • Reintroduction and recovery of endangered species
  • Prairie ecology

If you have questions or would like to request Prairie Wildlife Research for a speaking engagement, then please feel free to contact us.


What We Do: Services

Prairie Wildlife Research is available for wildlife consulting and contracting for a variety of different projects.  Our areas of expertise include:

  • Wildlife surveys for black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, swift fox, burrowing owls and other prairie species.
  • Habitat mapping and evaluation of prairie dog colonies for black-footed ferret reintroduction.
  • Capture and anesthesia of wildlife in the field, particularly black-footed ferrets.
  • Wildlife research design, logistics and planning as well as report and publication writing.
  • Reintroduction and translocation techniques for endangered and threatened species.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions or about a potential project.