Black-Footed Ferrets: A Conservation Success Story
Black-footed ferrets, once thought to be extinct, are turning into one of North America’s conservation success stories. History was made on October 2, 2009, when 34 black-footed ferrets were released in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. They are the first ferrets to live in the Canadian wilderness in over 70 years.
From considered extinct, to a known population of ten black-footed ferrets in 1985, these animals now number over 6,500 ferrets raised in captivity. Around 1,000 ferrets in total were living in the wild as of the fall of 2008, having been released on sites across the animal’s former range in the western and central US and northern Mexico. And now they are living in the Canadian prairies wilderness. What a great story in the making!
Since 2004, the Toronto Zoo, Parks Canada, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Calgary Zoo, WWF Canada and WWF US, amongst others, worked together on this conservation program with the goal of reintroducing black-footed ferrets into their traditional Canadian home range – from south of Calgary, Alberta to south of Regina, Saskatchewan, on the western prairies.
Some of the ferrets released in Canada were raised at the Toronto Zoo and then attended a Colorado camp in which they were trained to hunt wild prairie dogs, their main prey. The ferrets were released in Grasslands National Park because that’s where Canada’s largest population of prairie dogs lives. Following lots of research and planning, the groups involved and the ferrets were ready for release.
“The most exciting moment was taking part in a black-footed ferret release team,” Emily Giles, Conservation Program Coordinator, WWF Canada, explained to me last week. “We had the privilege of releasing six black-footed ferrets back into their Canadian home. It was very symbolic to take part in a release.” The event took place with members from various organizations in Canada and the US. “It symbolized the cross-border collaboration that was necessary to ensure this species’ long-term survival,” Emily explained. Nature doesn’t recognize borders, and many successful conservation programs include members from different countries and organizations. Complex situations like the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret – a top predator whose range spans the border of three countries –requires cross-border cooperation. Conservation and recovery of species at risk takes collaboration among governments, landowners, and NGO’s.
Reintroduced black-footed ferrets are now living in the wild in Canada, the US and Mexico, which gives conservationists great hope. “The black-footed ferret is a unique example in species recovery, because this is a species that was believed to be extinct globally, and miraculously was given a second chance for survival. It was completely wiped out from Canada, and [now] this animal can once again roam the Canadian prairies. The return of the black-footed ferret offers hope to the recovery of the grassland ecosystem, an ecosystem that has been dramatically altered from its natural state,” Emily explained.
Further, “it has shown conservationists that tough conservation goals can be achieved!” Emily continued. It also encourages endangered species breeding programs, since some of the animals released were born at the Toronto Zoo in Spring 2009. This release also highlights the importance of maintaining National Parks and protected places so species can be reintroduced. Not to mention it restores part of the national heritages of Canada, the US, and Mexico.
The ferrets will be monitored to estimate their population size, survival and reproduction. Annual population sizes, over-winter survival, spatial distribution, and litter production will all be important factors in ensuring the long-term success of the ferrets. The ultimate goal for the Canadian black-footed ferret recovery program is to have the population grow enough so that their endangered status can be downlisted and they settle once again into being a native species. Even with several North American black-footed ferret reintroduction sites being self-sustaining, these conservation achievements form only about 20% of the recovery plan’s target for wild ferret populations.
The black-footed ferret recovery strategy clearly indicates the critical habitat needed for the species’ recovery. Only a small fraction of Canada’s endangered species have recovery strategies with their critical habitat adequately defined. WWF-Canada, as well as other organizations, are working towards changing this and could use your support.