Once thought extinct, reintroduction to Utah just one of a growing number-

The black-footed ferret, closely related to the weasel, but a predatory specialist that eats prairie dogs almost exclusively (about 92% of their diet), was thought to be extinct back in the 1970s.  Amazingly a pet dog discovered a colony near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. Despite many setbacks since there are now enough for them to be reintroduced in a number of places, most recently Eastern Utah, as this AP story describes.

Through captive breeding and release there are now 7 self-sustaining ferret populations in the U.S.  There are populations in 18 states and more than a thousand ferrets in total that were born outside a breeding facility. Ferrets are also being restored to some Canadian provinces.

Like any animal that specializes in one kind of food, the black footed ferret only does well when prairie dogs do well.  The disease Sylvatic plague does not harm the ferrets, but it kills prairie dogs in mass. It has been the cause of the loss of many ferret populations. Ferrets are directly vulnerable to other diseases, especially canine distemper.

The ferret almost went extinct because of diseases after the numbers of prairie dogs were greatly reduced as prairies were plowed and made into croplands and prairie dogs were directly poisoned and shot on remaining prairies because cattle owners didn’t like prairie dogs.  With many fewer prairie dog towns in existence, the role of the plague became more important because it could destroy entire prairie dog colonies.

Although they are predators, black footed ferrets are prey themselves to many animals including raptors, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, and rattlesnakes.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

13 Responses to Eastern Utah gets 37 endangered black footed ferrets

  1. TC says:

    One correction – plague kills black-footed ferrets deader than a doornail. They are highly susceptible, hence the efforts to develop a vaccine for ferrets that can be administered orally to free-ranging animals.

    • TC,

      Are you sure? I specifically read it didn’t touch ferrets directly, only the prairie dogs, but then I was reading the Wikipedia.

      • Immer Treue says:

        TC is correct. The plague is not friendly toward Black-footed ferrets.


        • Ralph Maughan says:

          Immer Treue,

          Thanks for the article about the ferret and the plague. In reading the story did you also read this paragraph?

          “Meanwhile, the ferrets also face another threat: the potential loss of their main source of life, the black-tailed prairie dog. Reviled as a pest, the prairie dog is itself a threatened species, although it lacks any official status as such to offer it protection. Decisions on whether to poison the prairie dogs or protect them are both pending.”

          As usual, ranchers making another species (actually two of them) scarce.

          • Immer Treue says:


            Yes I was aware of the double whammy on the ferrets. I’ve heard individuals talk about their experiences on ranch land where they actually pay to vaporize (with rifles) entire colonies. Not meant as anti-hunting, it’s just that the comments that were made were enlightening on how the individuals seemed to enjoy what they were doing.

            One of the problems that exist when predation is removed from the equation. Prey species, given the chance, will mutiply to the point of nuisance.

  2. Mike says:

    Magnificent animal. One of the reasons Wind Cave National Park is so high on my list.

  3. Jon Way says:

    Great news, especially for a predatory animal which makes the lack of a US plan to have wolves recolonize (or be reintroduced to) more of their historical plan a mystery (probably a poor choice of words b.c we know why it isn’t happening) – same for pumas/cougars in the east.

  4. Chris Harbin says:

    The article Immer refers to mentions Conata Basin. We visited there in September and spent some time watching the dogs. At the Badlands visitor center there was no mention of the USFS plan to poison them. I realize that the USFS and the NPS are in two different departments but I would think the impact on the park would lead them to mention this somewhere in their displays or park newspaper. By the way, the Prarie Dog Coalition has a very nice web site!

  5. aves says:

    This year marks the 30th anniversary of the rediscovery of the BFF. Zoos have done an excellent job breeding BFF and maintaining as much genetic diversity as possible, including Smithsonian Institution scientists producing offspring through artificial insemination using frozen sperm that was collected over a decade ago from males that are now deceased.

    The only thing holding back recovery at this point is the need for more and larger release sites. The USFWS is gearing up for a program to compensate landowners who allow prairie dog towns on their land in sufficient size and numbers to support ferrets along with using more of the Safe Harbor agreements used with other endangered species (most notably and successfully with the red-cockaded woodpecker in the SE US).

    The hostility for prairie dogs runs deep in livestock culture, under the exaggerated premises that the dogs compete for forage and cows break their legs when stepping in their burrows. There’s some limited reality to those claims but they are of course, blown way out of proportion and certainly shouldn’t matter on public lands.

    This is a great site for BFF info:

  6. aves says:

    A ridiculous battle over prairie dogs and BFF has been raging in Kansas for some time now. Some landowners wanted to allow prairie dogs and BFF on their land. An anceint county ordinance required them to poison prairie dogs and when they refused the state planned to enter their land and poison the dogs themselves. The landowners responded by moving cattle into the town to stop the poisoning. It ended up in court, the landowners kept their prairie dogs and now have BFF but a lawsuit by the county is still ongoing.

    2007 article:

    2011 update:

    • Mike says:

      The whole prairie dog thing is a serious black eye for the morality of the human race.

    • Jon Way says:

      What a bunch of backward, conservative hicks… The landowners have to use the federal gov’t and an endangered species to prevent unwanted poisoning on their own land. Once again, hypocritical local (likely) conservative hypocrisy. I bet others will claim their constitutional rights are violated if they can’t have all out praire dog shooting contests… Hypocrites, just like the bed and breakfast commission situation in Oregon farm country.

  7. CodyCoyote says:

    I was one of the last two persons along with a Pitchfork Ranch cowboy to see Blackfooted Ferrets in the wild, at the Meeteetse colony in October 1981. The next time I saw their bright green eyes in a spotlight was when I guided the first USFWS researcher-grad student to the colony after midnight when he drove straight thru from Colorado like a kid going home for Christmas. Up till that point, only Wyoming Game and Fish ( alleged) biologists had been up there off and on , and frankly did not know what to do with the ferrets. That situation got worse as soon as USFWS showed up along with a private researcher. A HUGE turf war broke out. The winner was the least qualified agency to manage the ferrets, Wyo G&F. They had no money , no facility, and most of all ( least of all ) NO expertise. Notwithstanding their veterinarian-in-Chief was an alcoholic who frequently flamed out.

    Wyo G&F nearly killed all the ferrets. Every ferret alive today is descended from just one adult male , Scarface, and four related juvenile females. Think southern Utah polygamist clan and you’ve about got it.

    Don’t take my word for it. Read Yale professor Susan ( ex-Tim) Clark’s ponderous book ” Averting Extinction ” , which is a hyper-wordy dissertation on how NOT to run an endangered species recovery program. Wyo G&F was falling all opver themselves here a few weeks ago celebrating the ” success” of the BF Ferret recovery program 30 years on. If the public only knew…

    My considered advice : if any of you reading this should ever come across a Blackfooted Ferret from an undiscovered colony out there, don’t say one word about it to anyone. Not…one…word.

    (Then again , we do need a broader BF Ferret gene pool. I’m torn.)


November 2011


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey