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  • History
  • Breeding Program
  • Fact Sheet

The Black-footed ferret is a small carnivore considered one of the most endangered carnivores in North America – in fact, it was thought to be extinct twice.  Only in 1981 was a small relict population discovered near Meteetse, Wyoming – and there began an amazing story of bringing a native species back from near extinction into a captive breeding program and now black-footed ferrets are back in the wild in 19 release sites 17 in the United States, one in Canada and one in Mexico.

Black-footed Ferrets are formidable small predators that have evolved to prey primarily on Prairie Dogs.  They also are dependent on the Prairie Dog burrows for shelter, taking over burrows as living quarters.  Prairie dogs once ranged throughout North America in the great grasslands east of the Rocky Mountains, and the Black-footed Ferrets lived among them.
As these areas were developed, farmed or ranched, the huge Prairie Dog towns were systematically wiped out in many areas because of the widespread, but mistaken, belief that the Prairie Dogs were detrimental to the health of the prairie, would compete for forage with livestock and that livestock might break legs in the Prairie Dogs’ burrows.  Actually, Prairie Dogs are a keystone species that are vital in maintaining the health of a Prairie landscape.  They keep the soil aerated and healthy and prevent trees and shrubs from crowding out the grasses.  As the Prairie Dogs disappeared, so did the Ferrets.
An additional factor in the decline of the Prairie Dogs and the Ferrets was introduced disease such as plague and canine distemper which wiped out whole colonies.
By the mid 1900′s the Black-footed ferret was found only in small pockets in their former range, and although a captive breeding program was attempted in the 70′s, it was unsuccessful, and it was assumed that the Ferrets were lost.

Then in 1981, a dog named Shep brought home to its ranch in Wyoming a small animal that was later identified as a Black-Footed Ferret.  After surveying the area Biologist discovered small colonies of black-footed ferrets near Meteetse Wyoming.  These small colonies were studied and observed in the wild, providing information about black-footed ferrets that would become vital for captive husbandry.

In 1985, USFWS developed a plan to capture wild ferret in hopes of beginning a captive breeding program.  Just prior to implementing this plan disease hit the prairie dog colony, and subsequently the ferrets that fed on them.  There was a scramble to capture as many ferrets as possible to begin a breeding program immediately. Eighteen ferrets were captured and they became the founder group that has produced over 7000 ferrets.  Through the reintroduction program, it is estimated that over 1000 ferrets now exist in the wild.

How you can help:

You can help support our black-footed ferret breeding program by donating funds to the zoo’s conservation program.

To be more hands on, the Arizona Game and Fish Department need volunteers twice each year in the Spring and Fall to help count black-footed ferret in the release site in the Aubrey Valley near Seligman.  If you would like to participate in spotlighting send an email to AZferret@azgfd.gov   This is a marvelous way to really get to know what goes into helping and maintaining an endangered species in the wild.

Volunteers at The Phoenix Zoo also help with interpretive opportunities at special events here on grounds, explaining to our guests how important the various pieces of the puzzle are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem – whether it’s a prairie or a rainforest.

Find more information by visiting these sites:

Black-footed ferret recovery info

USFWS BFF species profile

Arizona Game and Fish Department–Black-footed ferret info

Black-footed ferrets at the Phoenix Zoo:

The Phoenix Zoo became involved with the black footed ferret breeding and release program in 1991. We were only the fourth breeding facility at that time.  At present, there are only six black-footed ferret breeding facilities in the world five of which are located in zoos, along with the breeding center headquarters, which is managed by USFWS and is located in Carr Colorado.

Phoenix Zoo has produced over 400 ferrets in the 20+ years that we have been involved with the black-footed ferret breeding program.  For many of those years the ferrets we had a small breeding compound.  In 2009, we began construction of a new 6200 square foot breeding center. In October 2010, we opened our new Black-footed ferret breeding center, thanks to generous support from the Arthur L “Bud” and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation. The new breeding center is located within the Conservation Center Complex.  This new facility is equipped with a treatment room, a lab, and is capable of holding many more ferrets than our old facility.

Bio-secure Environment

Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to some illnesses common to humans, such as flu cold and flu viruses.  For this reason, they are not exhibited and remain in a bio-secure environment.  The Conservation Technicians who take care of the ferrets are required to wear masks and dedicated clothing when working within the ferret compound.  Stress is also a potential threat, so maintaining the area off exhibit and in a quiet area is helpful for their general health, successful breeding and successful kit rearing.

The primary breeding compound is set away from other animals, and access to the facility is restricted to protect the ferrets from possible disease transmission.

The black-footed ferret breeding center can house over 30 ferrets.  It is also equipped with a lab a prep room and a laundry room.

The black-footed ferret breeding center is equipped with a lab so that our breeding center staff can evaluate reproductive readiness of the female ferrets.

Breeding center staff must wear masks and  dedicated clothing for working inside the building.  These precautions are necessary to protect ferrets from colds and flu viruses that they can catch from humans.

Behavioral enrichment is an important daily part of caring for black-footed ferrets.

Black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes
Size: Adult Body length: 18 to 24 inches (with tail)
Tail length: 5 to 6
Weight: 1.5–2 lbs

Range: Historically from Southern Canada to Mexico in North America. With the loss of 98 percent of prairie dog habitat, which ferrets depend upon, they neared total extinction in the 1980s. Intensive captive breeding programs have been working to save this species.

Since 1991, federal and state agencies, in cooperation with private landowners, conservation groups, Native Americans, and the North American zoo community, have been actively reintroducing ferrets back into the wild. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have since expanded to sites in Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona. Proposed reintroduction sites have been identified in Colorado and Utah.

Habitat: Black-footed ferrets can be found in the short or middle grass prairies and rolling hills of North America. Each ferret typically needs about 100-120 acres of space upon which to forage for food. They live within the abandoned burrows of prairie dogs and use these complex underground tunnels for shelter and hunting.

Young (# and name: foal, calf, cub, etc.): 1-6 kits.

Gestation: 42 days. Black-footed ferrets exhibit a phenomenon known as “delayed implantation, ” in which the fertilized egg does not start developing until conditions are appropriate for gestation

Diet (wild): Black-footed ferrets rely primarily on prairie dogs for food. However, they sometimes eat mice, ground squirrels, and other small animals. Normally, over 90% of a black-footed ferret’s diet consists of prairie dogs, which are hunted and killed within their burrows. A black-footed ferret typically consumes between 50-70 grams of meat per day. It has been observed that black-footed ferrets only kill enough to eat, and caches of stored food are not usually found

Life span: 2-3 years in the wild, 6 years in captivity

Status (common, threatened, endangered, etc.): Endangered – Considered to be the most endangered mammal in North America.

Anatomy/Physiology (anything unique or interesting): The fur of Mustela nigripes is yellowish-buff with pale underparts. The forehead, muzzle, and throat are white; while the feet are black. A black mask is observed around the eyes, which is well defined in young black-footed ferrets. Males are generally 10% larger than females.

Habits: Black-footed ferrets are active mostly during the night, with peak hours around dusk. Ferrets reduce their activity levels in the winter, sometimes remaining underground for up to a week. Black-footed ferrets are subterranean animals that utilize prairie dog burrows for travel and shelter. Ferrets are solitary, except during the breeding season, and there is no male participation in rearing of the young. Black-footed ferrets are also territorial and will actively defend territories against other same-sex competitors. Black-footed ferrets are considered an alert, agile, and curious mammal, and are known to exhibit keen senses of smell, sight, and hearing. They rely on olfactory communication (urination, defecation) to maintain their dominance hierarchies and to aid in retracing tracks during night travel. Black-footed ferrets are vocal mammals that chatter and hiss in the wild when they have been scared or frightened.