BILLINGS – Life in the animal kingdom is tough, and bouncing back from the brink of extinction is even tougher. But that’s exactly what the black-footed ferret is trying to do with a little help from animal biologists.
“These animals were genetically down to seven animals. There were only seven animals left that were breeding and so to know that their numbers are bouncing back, there are around 300 to 400 of them in the wild right now. That’s a real achievement. We released 18 of these incredibly endangered animals, one of the most endangered animals in North America, returned to their natural habitat and it was an amazing experience,” said Jeff Ewelt, Executive Director of ZooMontana.
Before 1981, most biologists thought the black-footed ferret was extinct, but that all changed one day on the Hog family’s ranch near Meeteetse when a dog named Shep made the whole discovery.
“We ended up releasing these guys in two different areas. They’re actually neighboring ranches, the Pitchfork Ranch and the Hog Family Ranch. And the Hog Family Ranch is where they were originally rediscovered. The family dog in 81, Shep, rediscovered the ferret species and actually killed the animal and brought it home, and the family didn’t think it looked quite right So they took him to a taxidermist, and the taxidermist said, ‘wait, I think it’s a black-footed ferret,’ and that’s when the discovery happened,” he said. added Ewelt.
This discovery gave ferrets a second chance. In 2016, Wyoming wildlife officials reintroduced these ferrets outside of Meeteetse, but an outbreak of plague wiped out most of the animals.
“Plague was introduced into the United States, and it began to sweep across the West, resulting in a decline in the ferret’s food source, as well as the plague, which also caused a decline in prairie dogs. , but black-footed ferrets are also susceptible to plague,” said Zack Walker, nongame wildlife supervisor at Wyoming Fish & Game.
Plague is not the only threat to ferrets, however.
“Plague, which is amazing to even talk about, but plague is wiping out prairie populations, which will ultimately lead to the demise of the ferret population because 90% of what black-footed ferrets eat are prairie dogs. So plague is number one, but number two is genetic diversity. And that’s a real problem with black-footed ferrets because breeding started with seven different individuals. So there’s not all just not a lot of diversity with the genes,” Ewelt added.
A possible solution could be cloning and, surprisingly, a black-footed ferret was cloned quite recently. This way they can introduce new genetics to the area and keep the population strong.
“This is the first time an endangered species has been cloned with the idea that maybe we can clone with genetic material to really bring in new genetic material,” Ewelt said.
But just over a week ago, 18 new furry faces were released back into the wild. Wildlife biologists hope they will help the population rebound and perhaps one day expand into states like Montana.
“As far as we know, there are no known populations of black-footed ferrets in Montana. Does that mean they’re not here? Absolutely not. They certainly could be, we we just haven’t discovered them yet,” Ewelt said.
Although a step in the right direction, the story of the American polecat is not yet a success.
“The goal would be to have a few thousand black-footed ferrets. I think 3,000 is the milestone they would be looking for, so there’s a lot of work to be done,” Ewelt added.
But its existence, these biologists say, is crucial to the entire landscape.
“It’s just one piece of the ecosystem puzzle that we’re trying to keep in there,” Walker added.