Black-Footed Ferret Kits | Uploaded January 16th, 2015
Credit: Ryan Moehring / USFWS Mountain-Prairie (usfwsmtnprairie on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

This week I read a story by Matt McFarland in The Washington Post about how drones could help save black-footed ferrets.

Black-Footed FerretJ. Michael Lockhart/USFWS on flickr / CC-by-2.0I was excited because I could see how this technology could also benefit the burrowing owl and other species.

The gist is that by combining 3-D mapping software with drone data, researchers can swiftly map out prairie dog burrows. This information helps wildlife rehabilitators reintroduce black-footed ferrets to ideal locations in the wild.

There is even the possibility that thermal cameras attached to the drones could identify the movement of black-footed ferrets throughout the night. 

Apparently, in the summer of 2014, it took over nine weeks nine to document 7,500 acres of land at Fort Belknap in Montana. This month (June 2015), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team will be able to map 1,000 acres of land in just three days by implementing drone technology.

Black-Footed Ferret
Credit: J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

What Threatens the Survival of the Black-Footed Ferret?

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) populations have suffered from the following: 

Prairie Dog LunchAndrew Watson on flickr / CC-by-2.0Widespread Extermination of Prairie Dogs

Around 90 percent of the black-footed ferret's diet is comprised of prairie dogs. However, during the 20th century, about 98 percent of all prairie dogs were exterminated – they were considered agricultural pests.

Poisons used to kill prairie dogs have also killed black-footed ferrets.

Black-Footed Ferret KitKimberly Tamkun / USFWS on flickr / CC-by-2.0Spread of Diseases 

Canine distemper, Sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis), rabies, tularemia, leptospirosis, mange and even human influenza.

I was alarmed to learned how high the black-footed ferret's mortality rate is: 50 to 83 percent.

Their average lifespan in the wild is between one and five years. In captivity, they live about eight or nine years.


Ferret Kit HeartKimberly Tamkun / USFWS on flickr / CC-by-2.0Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

As with almost every species in danger of extinction, habitat loss has greatly impacted future generations of black-footed ferrets.

Grasslands have been converted for agricultural uses and human development.

Because of this, genetic diversity in black-footed ferrets is less than 90 percent of what it was prior their decline in the wild.

In turn, inbred black-footed ferrets are less resilient, suffer immune system dysfunction, and reduced reproductive success rates. 

Up Next

I viewed about a dozen videos about the black-footed ferret, but this one by National Geographic was the most current (and the most touching) one I came across. Extraordinary efforts by volunteers, staff and veterinarians have helped save black-footed ferrets from extinction.

Dr. Mary Wright, a veterinarian at the USFWS Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center, stated that "all of the black-footed ferrets that are released into the wild are vaccinated for distemper, rabies, and plague."

Releasing Ferrets Into Their Prairie Home

Published on May 13th, 2015 by National Geographic

After acclimating to burrow systems and learning to hunt, captive-raised black-footed ferrets are finally prepared to live in the wild. Conservationists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work with private landowners to allow these endangered carnivores to roam the prairies of Colorado, where they hope to ensure the recovery of the species as well as protect the grassland ecosystem.

Credits: Katy Fox-O'Malley, Field Producer; J.J. Kelley, Videographer; Jennifer Murphy, Editor

October 2013, 30 Black-Footed Ferrets Were Released

Onto Cattle Rancher Gary Walker's Land, West of Pueblo, Colorado

Black-Footed Ferret Release
Credit: Marla Trollan / USFWS on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

How to Help Black-Footed Ferrets

Black-Footed FerretJ. Michael Lockhart/USFWS on flickr / CC-by-2.0Educate and encourage landowners and farmers to not disturb the areas where prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are found. I feel it's important that the use of any poisons (and those for crops) be carefully considered and avoided if possible.

As with the burrowing owl, it would probably be helpful to let authorities know if you see prairie dogs and/or black-footed ferrets on your property so they can help protect them and their new habitat.

Keep your distance from black-footed ferrets and your pets on a leash when outdoors – it's safer for them and limits the chances of spreading illnesses or disease from species-to-species. All pets should be kept up-to-date with their vaccinations.

To find out what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing to save these wonderful animals, I found the Endangered Species: Mountain-Prairie Region Black-Footed Ferret webpage the most current.

For an in-depth PDF about the Recovery Plan for the Black-Footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes), this second revision (February 2013), is one of the most comprehensive (publicly available) document I've ever viewed. A prime example of what other organizations, throughout the world, could do to save endangered species.

Lastly, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute did a wonderful job of detailing the current projects in need of support to help save black-footed ferrets which includes newer reproductive technologies.

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