The black footed ferret is a fierce but tiny predator. They are typically under three pounds and 90 percent of their diet is comprised of prairie dogs, which are usually bigger than them. The ferret’s fate is intrinsically linked to prairie dogs.
Historically, black footed ferrets numbered in the tens of thousands across the Great Plains regions and were found really anywhere there were prairie dogs. But a good prairie dog habitat tends to be similar to good livestock grazing areas and places for agricultural production. This made prairie dogs a pest or even a nuisance, and extermination campaigns targeted them.
By the 1950s, scientists suspected that the black footed ferrets had gone extinct in the wild. Not until 1964 did biologists learn of a small, remnant population in South Dakota. This population was thought to be the only surviving members of the species, which initiated a captive breeding program. But the program wasn’t successful as all the black footed ferrets died in captivity. And once more, biologists thought the animal was extinct.
But in 1981, scientists were again pleasantly surprised. A ranch dog just outside of Meeteetse showed up at the ranch house with a dead black footed ferret in its mouth. The new-found population spurred a lot of discussion among biologists and the community over whether the ferrets should just be monitored or to launch another captive breeding effort.
Scientists decided to just monitor the animals, but then a lethal disease that affects both prairie dogs and black footed ferrets began to decimate the population. Scientists then stepped in and captured the last 18 remaining ferrets.
The program was successful and in 2016 black footed ferrets were reintroduced to the Meeteetse area. It was the first time they had returned to the area in 35 years. In 2017, 15 more ferrets were released in the region and three wild-born pups were observed. One more release of captive black footed ferrets into the wild is planned in September 2018.
Museum Minute is a series co-produced with Wyoming Public Media (WPM). A new minute can be heard every Thursday morning at 6:49 a.m. on WPM.