A unique prairie species, black-footed ferrets are the only ferret species native to North America. After being declared globally extinct, a curious ranch dog caught a ferret near Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. It was then that a small population of black-footed ferrets was discovered. After nearly being wiped out by disease, the decision was made to capture the remaining 18 individuals for a captive breeding and recovery program, with the hopes of once again returning this species back to their original prairie habitat.
The last black-footed ferret was seen in Canada in the late 1930’s near the Frenchman River in Saskatchewan. For nearly 75 years, this charismatic carnivore has been absent from the Canadian prairies. Black footed ferrets have been successfully reintroduced into several US states and Mexico but are still considered endangered. Recovering black-footed ferrets in Canada will contribute to North American ferret conservation efforts by re-establishing a wild-functioning ferret population at the northern edge of the species distribution area in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.
Why Grasslands National Park? Black-footed ferrets were once found on the Canadian prairies living in close association with black-tailed prairie dogs, the ferrets' main prey. They are heavily dependent on black-tailed prairie dogs, which make up almost 90% of the ferrets' diet. Since Grasslands National Park contains the only black-tailed prairie dog population in Canada and is a stronghold for native prairie habitat, it is a prime location to host the Canadian return of the black-footed ferret. Habitat loss is considered the primary cause of the initial decline of the black-footed ferret, and remains to this day one of the most significant factors influencing the size of the black-footed ferret population.
What remains of the black-footed ferret’s grassland habitat is also shrinking and becoming more fragmented as agricultural and industrial developments spread across the landscape. As a result of low genetic diversity, the black-footed ferret population is also extremely susceptible to certain diseases, such as canine distemper and sylvatic plague. Although some of these diseases are not usually considered serious, all of them have the potential to significantly undermine the recovery of the species.
Now on October 2nd, 2009, black-footed ferrets have once again set their paws on Canadian soil. The effort to bring the black-footed ferret to Canada has been tremendous and has taken years of planning and research. The Partners in this effort include Parks Canada, Calgary Zoo, US Fish and Wildlife, Toronto Zoo, World Wildlife Fund, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Environment Canada and Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.