Rarely does an animal come back from extinction, but the black-footed ferret is one such exception to the rule. 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, the ferret is about 24 inches (.6 meters) long. The ferret has a long, slender body with light fur, dark legs and a “bandit mask” over its eyes.
They are carnivorous and prey on other animals under the cover of night. In the park and throughout much of its range, its primary prey is the black-tailed prairie dog, which, at two pounds (.45 kilograms) is roughly the weight of the black-footed ferret. The prairie dog makes 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 is the decline in prairie dog population and range. Without its main food source, black footed ferrets were at a disadvantage. Additionally, the introduction of certain diseases like canine distemper, which ferrets are highly susceptible to, caused further population decline.
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.
Wind Cave National Park was established to protect a 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. Animals like the bison, elk, and pronghorn have thrived at Wind Cave for over a hundred 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. The park continues the legacy of conservation with the black-footed ferret, an animal that exists thanks to its rare second chance at survival.
Last updated: June 29, 2020