The Black-Footed Ferret
A Masterwork of Stealth and Killing Efficiency
by Jay W. Sharp
The black-footed ferret, a masked, furtive and efficient killer, likely emigrated from Siberia to the Americas across the Bering Strait land bridge early in the Ice Ages, and it established itself as a fearful nighttime presence in the prairie dog towns of the America’s Great Plains.
The Species History
The black-footed ferret, closely related to the European and Siberian polecats, according to the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program Internet site, discovered ferret heaven among America’s prairie dogs. It learned to capitalize on the opportunities offered unwittingly by the prairie dog community. It appropriated labyrinthine prairie dog burrows, where it took shelter, cached food, and bore and raised a family. It viewed the prairie dogs themselves as a larder, taking perhaps 100 of them in the course of a year, said the Animal Info Internet site.
The black-footed ferret not only found an ideal home among the prairie dogs, it found vast opportunities for expanding its range into new towns, which spread across prairie lands extending from Canada’s southern Saskatchewan southward across 12 western U. S. states and into Mexico’s northern Chihuahua. The total prairie dog population may have numbered five billion at the peak. “In 1901 the famed federal biologist C. Hart Merriam of the Bureau of Biological Survey reported a single Texas town spread over 25,000 square miles,” said William Stolzenburg in “Prairie Dogs; Understanding the Underdog,” Nature Conservancy Internet site. The prairie dog population in that single community, on the high plains of the state, may have equaled some 400 million. Across the entire prairie dog range, the black-footed ferret population probably numbered in the tens of millions.
With its masked face and secretive nocturnal hunts, the black-footed ferret took on an air of mystery. It came to play a role in the mystic lives of the Indians of America’s western prairie lands, according to the ferret recovery program site. For instance, its skin and body parts were used by Navajo medicine men in healing ceremonies and by spiritual leaders in tribal rituals. The animal held a place of reverence by northwestern Arizona’s Hualapai Indians, who believed the creatures of the night to be sacred.
The Consummate Predator
The black-footed ferret’s evolutionary path culminated in the consummate predator, in fact, a serial prairie dog killer. About two feet in length (including the tail) and two or three pounds in weight, the animal slender, slinky, swift and agile bears a Zorro-like mask across its eyes. It has “black feet, and a black-tipped tail,” said the ferret recovery program site. “The rest of its short, sleek fur is a yellow-buff color, lighter on the belly and nearly white on the forehead, muzzle, and throat. It has short legs with large front paws and claws developed for digging. The ferret’s large ears and eyes suggest it has acute hearing and sight, but smell is probably its most important sense for hunting prey underground in the dark.” Its coat serves as perfect camouflage in the prairies, where it is practically undetectable, even in the daytime, unless it moves.
The black-footed ferret emerges from its burrow to hunt primarily in the night. Traveling in a kind of undulating gallop, it may cover several miles and investigate many dozen prairie dog burrows in a single evening, said the Animal Info Internet site. With its slender and agile body, it slips effortlessly into a burrow, blocking the sleeping prairie dog’s escape. It attacks its slumbering prey, killing it swiftly with a bite to the neck. So stealthy that it usually eludes observation, it did not appear in the literature until 1851, when the eminent John James Audubon first reported on the animal.
The Ferret’s Life History
The black-footed ferret the only ferret native to North America belongs to the weasels, or the mustelids, a family of 65 ferocious meat-eating species that includes, not only the polecats, but also weasels, badgers, martens, otters, minks, wolverines and others. “The smallest mustelid is the least weasel, weighing 1.2 to 2.4 ounces” according to the Enchanted Learning Internet site, and “the biggest mustelid is the South American giant otter, weighing 60-90 pounds.” The mustelids, which took their own evolutionary path about 35 million years ago, live in a wide-range of environments in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. They all have, said Enchanted Learning, “5-toed feet with claws. Most have a long body, small, rounded ears, small eyes, and short legs.” They have, under their tails, scent glands that they use to produce a powerfully repellant stink.
The black-footed ferret, judging by the behavior of captive animals, breeds in the early spring, said a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department paper “The Black-footed Ferret.” During the mating season, the male charms the female by “chortling.” After mating, the male promptly abandons his mate. The pregnant female holds full responsibility for raising her coming family.
In the wild, she takes over a vacated prairie dog burrow, which may wander 30 to 40 feet in length and 10 to 15 feet in depth. It may comprise several entrances and chambers with interconnecting tunnels. After a gestation period of about six weeks, she delivers a litter of three to five blind, helpless and squeaking “kits,” which grow swiftly under their mother’s care.
Within six or seven weeks, a kit ventures from its burrow for the first time, typically making its debut early in the morning. Under its mother’s tutelage, it learns the art of the hunt. It plays with siblings, stalking, chasing and “attacking,” perfecting skills it will need as an adult. It learns to bark and hiss if it is alarmed. It will learn the “ferret dance,” which it will perform with its mouth wide open, “hopping, leaping and bucking with total reckless abandon,” said the ferret recover program site.
By early fall, the young ferret, now almost fully grown and newly independent, leaves home to stake out its own territory, either within the immediately surrounding prairie dog town or within a neighboring town. “It is during this dispersal period that the young are exposed to the greatest danger,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife, for it is then that they learn, sometimes the hard way, about the threats raised by predators such as coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, rattlesnakes and predatory birds. As an unwelcome newcomer to a prospective territory, it may, says the Kids Planet Internet site, find itself under attack by a gang of prairie dogs.
If the young ferret survives the dispersal period, it will take up the routine of a mostly solitary life, especially during the fall and winter, within a community of sociable extroverts. It will mark its territory by rubbing its scent glands on the surrounding plants, soil and stones. It will find, according to the Wildlife Habitat Management Institute’s leaflet, “The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog,” that its neighbors live in what biologists call “wards,” which encompass about five acres with a population density of about five to 35 animals per acre. It will discover that a prairie dog family, including a male with a small harem and several juveniles, lives in a “coterie,” a home territory that covers roughly an acre.
Altogether, said Texas Parks and Wildlife, “The area required to support a sustainable breeding population of 40 to 60 adult ferrets is estimated to be about 6000 acres of prairie dog towns, either contiguous or located within about 4 miles of one another.”
Within its own hunting range, a two- to three-pound black-footed young ferret will live out the several years of its life taking, annually, scores of two- to three-pound prairie dogs as well as occasional birds, rodents and rabbits.
The Demise of the Black-footed Ferret
The black-footed ferret, like other abundant species in its range, fell victim to America’s western advance, a human tidal wave that led to the most horrendous wildlife slaughter in history. While the massive buffalo and antelope herds and the wolf packs of the western range lands fell to professional hunters, the black-footed ferret population collapsed as prairie dog towns disintegrated in the wake of wholesale poisoning campaigns, hunters’ bullets, large-scale cattle grazing, farmers’ plows, urban development and introduced diseases. Within decades, the range of the black-footed ferret and its prairie dog hosts had shrunk by more than 98 percent.
By 1967, according to the ferret recover program site, the black-footed ferret appeared on the list of Endangered Species, with no more than mere handful remaining from the original population of tens of millions. Twelve years later, the ferret, this distinctive animal of the American West, appeared to have vanished. In the fall of 1981, however, a small, unknown and highly welcome colony of ferrets turned up near the community of Meeteetse, Wyoming. Within a few years, it almost disappeared with an outbreak of canine distemper and sylvatic plague. By 1987, the last 18 Meeteetse black-footed ferrets now probably the most rare mammal on earth had been captured by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. These animals would be charged with saving the species.
Hope for the Black-footed Ferret
Within a short time, black-footed ferrets named Becky and Jenny produced the first litters of kits in the captive breeding program established by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the American Zoo & Aquarium Association. By 1989, the ferrets had increased their numbers to 120, raising hopes that the animal might be saved after all and even re-introduced to the wild.
In fact, said the ferret recovery program site, “Since 1991, federal and state agencies, in cooperation with private landowners, conservation groups, Native Americans, and the North American zoo community, have been actively reintroducing ferrets back into the wild. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have since expanded to sites in Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona. Proposed reintroduction sites have been identified in Colorado and Utah.” Another reintroduction site has been established in Chihuahua, near the village of Janos.
The ferret experienced a banner year in 1998, when they produced more kits in the wild than in captivity for the first time since the program began.
“The Recovery Plan for the black-footed ferret calls for the establishment of 10 or more separate, self-sustaining wild populations. By the year 2010, biologists hope to have 1500 ferrets established in the wild, with no fewer than 30 breeding adults in each population. If these objectives are met, the ferret could be downlisted from endangered to threatened status.”
Although the black-footed ferret a symbol of the destruction of much of the wildlife community of the American West will remain vulnerable to predators, disease, agricultural and urban development, and habitat fragmentation, it may yet be saved.
If interested, you may be able to become involved in a black-footed ferret reintroduction and research project in the desert Southwest, in Aubrey Valley near Seligman, Arizona, by contacting:
Black-footed Ferret Project
Arizona Game and Fish Department
PO Box 397
Seligman, Arizona 86337
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Internet site, the project “is a joint effort of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Phoenix Zoo, the Navajo Nation, Arizona State Land Department, Hualapai Nation and the Cholla Cattle Company.
Bill Van Pelt, head of bird and mammal programs for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said “We’re seeing many signs of success in the ferret reintroduction project each year, but 2005 marks the best year yet.”
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