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Loss of habitat and disease. The black-footed ferret is considered a specialist since it is completely dependent upon prairie dogs for survival. Prairie dogs have declined in numbers due to conversion of prairie for agricultural purposes, poisoning campaigns and exotic diseases like sylvatic plague. It is estimated that they occupy only about 2% of their original range. As prairie dog numbers declined, so did the black-footed ferret, until only 18 known individuals were left in the world.
Black-footed ferret breeding facilities, including the National BFF Conservation Center, are closed to the public due to disease and disturbance concerns. Check the 30th Anniversary page to see if one of the BFF Educational Ambassadors will be on display at an event near you!
Unless you live close to one of the reintroduction sites you most likely did not observe a black-footed ferret. Since they are solitary, nocturnal, fossorial animals they are quite difficult to observe in the wild. They are commonly confused with other members of the mustelidae family.
Black-footed ferrets can’t be released everywhere prairie dogs are located. Reintroduction sites have to meet certain criteria in order to be considered as a possible site.
The black-footed ferret is considered a flagship species for the North American prairie. That means that if we save the ferret we save over 130 unique plants and animals that depend on this ecosystem. It is a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy and an ecosystem with all of its pieces indicates a healthy world.
No. The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) the only ferret native to North America and is considered an endangered species. As such, people are not allowed to own them as pets. The domestic ferret (Mustela putorius) is of European origin and has been domesticated for several thousand years. This is the ferret species your friends and neighbors may have. They sometimes have similar colorations to BFFs.
The black-footed ferret is a member of a diverse family of carnivorous mammals known as mustelids. Its many relatives include the domestic ferret, mink, weasel, badger, otter and wolverine. They are typically characterized by large necks, small heads, short legs, feet with five digits with non-retractile claws, enlarged anal scent glands, the absence of the second upper molar, and the absence of the carnassial notch on the fourth upper premolar. They either have an elongated body with a long tail or a stocky build with a short tail. Click here for more information on mustelids.
Black-footed ferrets are 18-24 inches (46-61 cm) long, including a 5-6 inch tail. They weigh up to 2.5 pounds (1.13 kg) with males slightly larger than females. Their short, sleek fur is a pale yellow-buff color, lighter on the belly and nearly white on the face and throat. They are characterized by a black face mask, black feet and a black-tipped tail.
In the wild, black-footed ferrets once ranged throughout the Great Plains wherever prairie dog colonies thrived from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Today, they have been reintroduced at certain locations within their historic range.
In the wild, black-footed ferrets live in prairie dog colonies. They eat, sleep and raise their young in prairie dog burrows, and cannot survive for extended periods outside of a prairie dog colony. They spend about 90 percent of their time underground.
Black-footed ferrets are primarily nocturnal, so are most active at night. Ferrets are more active during full moons. During the winter months, they are considerably less active, but they do not hibernate.
Although black-footed ferrets are indeed most active at night, they are seen often above ground during daylight hours especially during dusk and dawn. The majority of our photos are of captive animals indoors or in preconditioning pens. During their 30 days in the pens the ferrets become more and more secretive.
Few black-footed ferrets live beyond 3 years of age in the wild and 6-9 years in captivity.
They can travel at a rate of 5-7 miles per hour. Biologists have tracked ferrets who have traveled 6 miles in one night and one busy ferret checked out over 100 prairie dog burrows in a single night! Black-footed ferrets “bound” across the prairie ecosystem going from burrow to burrow.
Black-footed ferrets chatter loudly when they are alarmed or excited. At such times, they emit several loud barks interrupted by low hissing sounds. Ferrets also chuckle during breeding and ferret kits emit tiny squeaking sounds. Black-footed ferrets also communicate with scent. They establish territories and mark them by rubbing their scent glands on rocks, soil and vegetation. Check out our Animal Profile page to hear a chatter!
In the wild, prairie dogs make up 90% of a ferret’s diet. A ferret may eat over 100 prairie dogs in one year. They may also occasionally eat ground squirrels, small rodents, rabbits and birds. They cache their food in order to minimize their duration above ground where they are exposed to predators.
Ferrets kill their prey by suffocating them with a sustained bite to the throat. They do most of their hunting at night in prairie dog burrows, killing prairie dogs while they sleep. They eat every bit of the prairie dog.
Gestation is 42 days.
Baby ferrets are called "kits".
Average litter size is 3-4 kits, although litters of 1 to 10 have been documented in captivity.
The majority of black-footed ferret kits are born in May and June. In the wild, they are born underground in prairie dog burrows.
Male ferrets play no part in raising kits. The female is solely responsible for raising kits. Kits are born blind and helpless and stay below ground until they are about 70 days old. At this age, the female begins to take her young on hunting forays and separates the kits into different burrows. By October, the young are completely independent and will disperse away from their family group in order to establish their own territories.
Black-footed ferrets are very playful and curious about their surroundings, especially as kits. Both wild and captive ferrets do the “ferret dance” with mouths wide open, hopping, leaping, and bucking with apparent total reckless abandon! Typically ferrets will dart down a prairie dog burrow and then pop back up to see what’s going on.
Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to predation by a large number of predators, including coyotes, foxes, badgers, owls, hawks, eagles and rattlesnakes.
The biggest threat to the black-footed ferret is lack of available suitable prairie dog habitat. Unless efforts are made to protect and conserve the prairie ecosystem, the ferret and many other plant and animal species could face extinction. Disease also poses a significant threat to the black-footed ferret. Sylvatic plague, a bacteria spread by fleas, is deadly to both ferrets and prairie dogs. Ferrets are also susceptible to canine distemper, pneumonia, tularemia and a variety of internal parasites.
See our Reintroduction page for a map of all reintroduction sites.
All released black-footed ferrets get a small transponder chip implanted under their skin to aid in individual identification. Some have been radio-collared prior to release to provide researchers with answers to specific questions. Field crews conduct spotlight surveys to locate ferrets by their distinctive green eyeshine. In winter, snow tracking is another means of locating ferrets.
As of 2010, over 7,000 ferrets had been born in the captive breeding program.
While it is impossible to know the exact number of ferrets in the wild, 1998 marked the first year since recovery efforts began that there were more ferrets living in the wild than in captivity. As of fall 2010 biologists estimate the total wild population at 1,000 individuals. There are an additional 300 ferrets housed in captivity.
Many facilities across North America have live black-footed ferrets on display. For a complete list click here.
See our How to Help page for tips.