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Masked Bandits: Black-footed Ferrets in Wind Cave

a tan ferret with a black mask on a dirt mound
Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal predators that prey on prairie dogs.

NPS Photo

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Rarely does an animal come back from extinction, but the black-footed ferret is one such exception. From being an animal abundant on the North American prairie, to nearly disappearing, this animal tells the story of second chances.

The black-footed ferret is a member of the weasel family and makes its home on the prairie. From snout tip to tail tip, they are about 24 inches long. They have a long, slender body with light fur and a “bandit mask” over their eyes. It gets its name from its dark brown or black legs.
a tan ferret with a black mask and black legs looking at the camera
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until 1981.

USFWS Photo

These carnivores hunt under the cover of night. Throughout most of its range, its primary prey is the prairie dog, which is roughly the same weight as the ferret at two pounds. Prairie dogs make up 80-90% of its diet. The ferret makes its home in prairie dog burrows, living amongst its prey.

Several factors contributed to the decline of black-footed ferrets. The most notable was the dramatic decline in prairie dog numbers. In the 1800s, settlers moving west extirpated, or killed off, most of the prairie dog population. Without its main food source, ferret numbers plummeted. Additionally, the introduction of diseases like plague and canine distemper wreaked havoc on the remaining population.

By 1979, the black-footed ferret was declared extinct. Then, in 1981, a small population of them were discovered in Wyoming. A captive breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service raised the population enough for eventual wild release. State and tribal agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, and North American zoos also contribute to the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret.
a ranger with gloves releases a ferret into a burrow from an animal carrier packed with shredded paper
Black-footed ferrets continue to be released at Wind Cave as part of the ferret management plan.

NPS Photo

Reintroduction


Wind Cave National Park was established to protect the cave in 1903, but with the creation of the Wind Cave National Game Preserve in 1912, its mission was expanded to include the protection of prairie animals that had seen sharp decline in numbers. Bison, elk, and pronghorns were all reintroduced to the park and have thrived at Wind Cave for over 100 years.

In 2007, black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to the park. Since then, a small but stable population has existed here. Thanks to the park’s healthy population of prairie dogs and distance from urban influence, Wind Cave National Park is good habitat to support ferrets.
a sedated ferret is examined by a veterinarian on an exam table
Captured ferrets are sedated before being examined. After their check-up, they are woken up and returned to their burrows.

NPS Photo

Management


Park biologists carefully monitor ferret numbers in the park. Though numbers change from year to year, typically fewer than 40 ferrets live in the park. Each year, ferrets are captured and transported to a mobile veterinarian where they are examined and vaccinated. This allows biologists to monitor the health of the ferret population in the park. Ferrets are also given a microchip with a unique ID number that can be used to identify individual ferrets. The park continues the legacy of conservation with the black-footed ferret, an animal that exists thanks to its rare second chance at survival.

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    Last updated: October 23, 2020