The black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct by 1980. On September 26, 1981 a ranch dog and family near Meeteetse, Wyoming rediscovered the species and sparked an effort to restore North America’s only native ferret species. We celebrate black-footed ferrets and the many biologists, past and present, working to restore black-footed ferrets to the prairies.
The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is the only ferret species native to North America and feeds exclusively on prairie dogs. Throughout much of the 20th Century very little was known about black-footed ferrets until several pioneering wildlife biologists in South Dakota began studying the species in the 1960’s. By then black-footed ferrets were already rare but these men initiated the first field studies to learn about the ecology of the species. Several black-footed ferrets were captured for a captive breeding effort in hopes of reviving the species, but it was not to be. The last black-footed ferret was seen in 1974 and the last of the captive animals died in 1979. Not a single black-footed ferret was known to be alive and many feared the species was gone forever.
On the cool, nearly moonless night of September 26, 1981 a strange creature prowled the prairies on the Hogg Ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. The Hoggs, John and Lucille, had a faithful dog on the ranch, a blue-heeler mix named Shep. As the strange creature got closer to the ranch house Shep, being a good ranch dog, defended his territory and dispatched the intruder. In the morning John and Lucille found the carcass of the odd creature and eventually decided to take it in to Larry LaFranchi, a local taxidermist, who knew exactly what it was; a black-footed ferret.
Biologists came to Meeteetse to initiate studies and determine how many black-footed ferrets existed in the area. By 1984 they had documented 129 individuals but by the next year the population declined dramatically to 58 animals. Two diseases, sylvatic plague and canine distemper, were ravaging the black-footed ferret population. Plague is deadly for prairie dogs as well thus disease was impacting black-footed ferrets and their primary prey source. The difficult decision was made to capture the last animals and by 1987 the last 18 black-footed ferrets alive on the planet were captured.
Captive breeding efforts were successful and enough kits, young black-footed ferrets, were produced that reintroduction back into the wild began in 1991. Over the past 22 years black-footed ferrets have been captive bred in zoos and released into the wild across North America. Now more than 500 black-footed ferrets exist in the wild and another 300 in captivity because of the dedication of many agencies, organizations and individuals. And so it is on September 26th, the day of ‘rediscovery’ by Shep, that we celebrate North America’s only native ferret species; the black-footed ferret.