Conservation Status Endangered
The underside and the edges of the face of the black-footed ferret is covered with a browny-white fur. Their back and the top of their head are coloured brown. The tip of the tail, there nose and their stout legs are black. Running across the face is a band of black. Their body is rotund and elongated. Their feet are covered with hair which conceals their long, sharp claws. The ears are triangular and sit on top of the head.
Black footed ferrets measure between 38 and 41cm (15-16in) body length. Their tail contributes another 11-13cm to their length. They weigh in at between 900 and 1000g (32-36oz).
Wild lifespan is generally only about 1 year but they are capable of making it to 5 years old.
The black footed ferret is a carnivore. Up to 90% of their diet consists of prairie dogs. In some areas the prairie dogs hibernate for four months. During this period the ferrets feed on voles and mice. Other prey items include thirteen-lined ground squirrels, plains pocket gophers, mountain cottontails, upland sandpipers, horned larks, western meadowlarks, white-tailed jackrabbits and deer mice.
This species obtains their water from their prey.
Black footed ferrets make their home in the United States, Mexico and Canada. Their previous range was dictated by where prairie dogs lived. By 2007 though they were only found in Wyoming. Since then they have been released into Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Saskatchewan and Mexico.
These ferrets are found on shortgrass prairie, mixed grass prairie, desert grassland, shrub steppe, sagebrush steppe, mountain grassland and semi-arid grassland.
Females maintain smaller home ranges than males. A male’s territory will consist of numerous females’ territories.
Mating takes place in February and March. A male will come across a female who is in season and begin to sniff her genital region. They will then stay together for a few hours before mating begins.
After 42-45 days a litter of 1-6 kits is born. An average litter is 3 kits. The mother will use a prairie dog burrow as a nest. This is lined with buffalo grass, prairie threeawn, sixweeks grass and cheatgrass.
This species is also capable of delayed implantation. This means that the embryos do not begin development until the environmental conditions are right.
The kits stay with their mother for a number of months. After 6 weeks they will make take their first outing from the burrow. Following this the mother spreads them across individual burrows. After about 6 months they are the size of an adult and venture off on their own.
Sexual maturity is achieved at 12 months old.
Black footed ferrets are solitary except for when breeding. They are nocturnal and most of their hunting is done by sneaking into prairie dog burrows while they sleep. During winter they may not exit their burrow for up to 6 days at a time.
Communication is through olfactory methods. They will use urination and defecation to convey messages. This is also used so they can re-trace their tracks during the night. They are also quite vocal hissing and chattering regularly as a sign of being scared or frightened.
Predators of the black footed ferret include American badgers, bobcats, prairie dogs, hawks, prairie rattlesnakes, great horned owls, coyotes and golden eagles. Traps set for predators, oil and natural gas exploration along with seismic activity have all impacted on the black footed ferret.
Extinction, Re-discovery and Re-introduction
Until 1979 this species was classified as extinct in the wild. In 1981 it was rediscovered when a lady’s dog brought a dead one to her door. A dozen ferrets were found and these lasted till 1897 when it was once again declared extinct in the wild.
During 1897 a captive breeding program began with 18 living individuals participating in this. It was managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In 1991 they began reintroduction. These reintroduced ferrets have begun breeding and by 2013 1,200 ferrets were thought to remain in the wild.
This species is considered to be North America’s rarest mammal.
By USFWS Mountain Prairie (Black-footed Ferret Uploaded by Mariomassone) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ltshears (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons