By Arizona Game & Fish Dept.
During October, workers and volunteers with the Arizona Game and Fish Department will be looking for—and counting—an elusive nocturnal carnivore, the black-footed ferret.
Because the ferret is almost strictly nocturnal, the means to document them, called spotlighting, will be done during evening hours.
As part of the black-footed ferret recovery effort, volunteers and workers will be searching in the Aubrey Valley, west of Seligman in northern Arizona.
Counting the ferrets is an important effort.
Only 18 black-footed ferrets were left in the world – seven males and 11 females – when captive breeding efforts began in 1985. In 1996, Arizona’s Aubrey Valley was selected as a reintroduction site.
In the last decade, black-footed ferrets in Aubrey Valley have reached a population high enough to be considered self-sustaining, meaning no captive-bred ferrets are needed to maintain a population.
The ferrets are members of the Mustelidae or weasel family, which also includes otters, badgers and wolverines.
All members of this family have anal scent glands. Black-footed ferrets are North America’s only native ferret, and they are a different species than ferrets found in pet stores. The animals sold in pet stores are European ferrets, a domesticated form of the European polecat.
Black-footed ferrets are 18 to 24 inches long, have 5 to 6 inch tails, and can weigh up to two and a half pounds. They are solitary animals except during the mating season and when mothers are raising their young.
Mating occurs in the spring during a three day period. Litters of three to five kits are born in early summer after a six week gestation period. The average lifespan for a ferret is three to five years. Males and females look identical, although males are slightly larger.
Black-footed ferrets are highly specialized predators that depend on prairie dogs for food and shelter. More than 90 percent of the ferret diet is made up of prairie dogs. Ferrets and prairie dogs live in prairie dog towns in underground tunnels or burrows.
In the late 1900s, a national effort to eradicate prairie dogs from prairies and grassland because they were considered pests, resulted in a drastic decline in prairie dogs. This action also had extreme consequences for the ferrets because of their dependency on prairie dogs.
By the late 1970s, no known black-footed ferrets lived in the wild, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered declaring them extinct for the second time.
However, in 1981, the last remaining population of black-footed ferrets was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyo., on a privately-owned ranch. The USFWS began an intensive search and discovered a population of more than 100 ferrets.
These animals were left on the ranch where they were closely monitored until a plague and canine distemper outbreak caused population numbers to plummet to 18 individuals. These last remaining ferrets were trapped and a captive breeding program was started in several North American zoos.
Only seven of the 18 individual ferrets that remained were suitable for reproducing, so all of the ferrets used for reintroduction efforts today originate from these founding animals.
After a 60 year absence in Arizona, the Arizona Game and Fish Department began reintroducing black-footed ferrets in the state in 1996. With the release of 35 animals in Aubrey Valley outside of Seligman, Arizona, became the fourth reintroduction site in the United States.
— From the Arizona Game and Fish Department
— Photo courtesy of USFWS